If you're looking for a higher-end 360-degree camera to create VR videos that won't cost the price of a new sedan, your only option is the $5,000 GoPro Omni, which is pretty much six GoPros slapped into a rig. It's a workable solution, but because it's six GoPros working in tandem it can be inconvenient to arrange them for recording. You not only have to make sure all the cameras are charged near the same level, you have to hope one of them doesn't give out and ruin your entire picture.
The convenience of all-in-one options are only really available on both the high (Nokia OZO) and low (Gear 360) ends. With its new $3,499 8K 3D Insta360 Pro, which is available for pre-order today online, Insta360 is hoping to slot right into that gap. The company is no stranger to affordable cameras. Its Air and Nano are good options that let Android and iPhone users quickly share 360 videos to social networks. In our limited hands-on time with the Pro, it feels like the company might have something that could entice amateurs who want to take the next step, or budget-conscious YouTubers and small newsrooms that want to break into VR filmmaking.
Essential reading: The best 360-degree cameras
Firstly, the Insta360 Pro is adorable. It looks like BB-8's monochrome cousin, and no matter what direction you look at it, it looks like there's a robotic face greeting you. The six 200-degree lenses are like big puppy dog eyes. It's a friendly design, and that friendliness extends to actually using the camera. There are three major modes - stills, video and live streaming - that can be selected on the device. They allow you to take an 8K 3D photo, create a 6K 3D video or live stream in 4K 3D.
While the photos and video were bright and detailed with a good sense of depth, the more impressive bit is that it only took a couple minutes from creating the VR content to experiencing it. One of the big pain points with VR filmmaking is stitching all that footage together. The 360 Pro actually stitches together 8K 3D images and 4K 3D videos automatically. So all you have to do is transfer your VR stuff from the device to your phone or computer and you're good to go. This is a boon for those who want to get into VR filmmaking but are afraid of losing hours and hours to post production. However, the big caveat here is that if you want 6K 3D video you will have to stitch that together yourself using Insta360's desktop software.
As you can probably tell, Insta360 wants the Pro to be as easy as possible to use, from creation to consumption. Even the settings are easy to configure. One of the four buttons on the device is dedicated to settings, but it's not there to take you to a menu. Instead, it activates a QR code reader on the camera. You have to open up the companion app and configure your settings from there, and then the app gives you a QR code. Click the settings button on the camera, let the camera see the QR code and bam, the device adopts those settings. It's nothing revolutionary, but it sure beats trying to adjust things on the camera's small display.
The Insta360 Pro is also light at 2.7 pounds, making it lighter than a MacBook Pro, and you can hook it up to a drone to get aerial photography if you need it. If not, you can attach it to pretty much any standard tripod.
Speaking of setting up your shot, being able to see what you're shooting before you're shooting it is vital. You've probably quickly tried to take a photo of someone only to find out later that you just got their shoulder. Previewing your shot is pretty difficult on a lot of 360 cameras, but the Pro offers a live preview that lets you experience your shot in a VR headset before you start. In our hands-on we found the real-time stitching to be a little uneven, distorting when new objects entered the frame. Insta360 told us it might have been Wi-Fi interference from our local network.
Insta360 is definitely looking to bring the convenience of low-end 360 cameras to the mid-range, erasing as many pain points as it can to try to entice those who are intimidated by high-end VR filmmaking but want something more than what the low-end offers. If it succeeds and can get amateurs, YouTubers and smaller newsrooms adopting the Pro, it means better quality content for the rest of us to enjoy on our VR headsets.