At this year's I/O conference, Google announced it was adding yet another member to the Jump family with the help of Yi Technology. While Jump is aimed at the fat wallets of Hollywood, this Chinese company actually started out creating home security cameras and affordable action cams.
We spoke with co-founder and CEO of Yi Technology, Sean Da, about how the company started working with Google, and why he believes the pricey rigs will make a difference for VR in the long run.
Budget cam beginnings
Despite the 400+ employees, Da still refers to Yi as a startup. Perhaps because it's only three years old and its Shanghai and Seattle offices are full of young, hip engineers. With a line of home security cameras and a dash cam for driving, the Yi Action Camera was one of the company's first big products. Now, GoPro's latest camera the Hero5 costs $399. GoPro is still the go-to name in action cams but Da thinks they're still too expensive and plans to carve out a place as a quality, cheaper alternative.
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"The first generation (Yi Action Camera) was announced last March, for under $100," he said. "It was the first one of that quality for that price. In July we announced a high performance, second generation device. It's 4K with improvements to battery life, LCD touch, high end sensors and imaging."
He notes that the Yi 4K Action Camera matches the Hero5 spec for spec for just $249 and early Amazon reviews seem to confirm the good deal.
Jumping into bed with Google
The spec to price ratio of the Yi 4K Action Camera seems to be exactly what Google was looking for when it partnered with Yi. The upcoming Jump VR rig, due to launch before the end of 2016, will use multiple Yi 4K Action Cameras instead of GoPros.
Google worked with Yi's competitor last year on the Odyssey Jump rig which consisted of 16 Hero4 cameras that altogether costs $15,000. The eye watering price isn't for us normal folk and is instead geared towards professional usage, much like the $60,000 Nokia OZO or the $30,000 Facebook Surround 360 rigs.
If the new, more affordable Jump rig again uses 16 cameras, and the Yi Cams are $100 - $150 cheaper each, that's a lot of saving - at least $2,000 - to be passed on to the studio or budding indie director looking to film for VR. Still, it doesn't mean regular folk will be able to afford one.
"We actually started working with Google a year ago," he said. "We had an announcement at Google I/O about Jump but that's for very high end use. The Jump camera is for cinematic movie studios. But I believe that part of the industry will really help VR. It's always the professionals that start first."
Yi's CEO suggests we should be a little patient with relatively high prices, let the pros do the job and reap the benefits when they're done. Don't forget, Google announced a partnership with IMAX at the same time as Yi Technology.
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Da thinks the expensive rigs will lead the way for more quality content which will in turn inspire everyone else to see the potential of VR. In a way, he's right. VR short films are popular both on the festival circuit and at home on the Gear VR - think Invasion or Allumette - and there's only been an increasing demand for more VR film experiences made from high caliber studios.
That doesn't leave a lot of room for viewers to get involved. When asked if Jump rigs would ever see the same affordability as Yi's current offerings, Da couldn't say.
"I think that's a different angle," he said. "It's about the content... once we make a very solid camera, we'll make it very easy to use for movie directors and studios. When they make content it's viewed by millions of users. There just isn't a lot of good content yet. So we want to help solve that problem, together with Google."
360 cameras aren't good enough (yet)
As for the 360-degree cameras out right now? Da doesn't think very highly of them saying, "So far, it's not there yet. We've tried all of them: Gear VR 360, LG 360 Cam and so on. They're not really acceptable for users. Maybe next year it will be better. Maybe when they hit the Hero3 or Hero4 maturity, but it will take some time."
Da didn't confirm any plans for a budget Yi 360 camera but also isn't ruling it out. For now, it seems the team is sticking with the high end hardware and waiting to see what happens. Still, he does believe in Google's lower end options and sees Google's Daydream platform and Daydream View as part of the bigger VR picture. Because mobile VR is accessible and lots of companies are working together on both hardware and software, virtual reality as a medium will be enriched.
As for his own company's partnership with Google and its work in creating VR: "I think we're in a good business."