How we built the first fully operational Surround 360 Camera back in 2016

Our Story of Building the Surround 360 Camera

Like many others in the VR industry, when we first laid eyes on the Surround 360 Camera featured at the Facebook F8 conference in Spring of 2016, we became very excited in hope this might be the tool to catapult Cinematic VR to the next level. Having played with nearly every stereoscopic 360 rig available on the market — and even having built one of our own which consisted of 20 GoPro cameras, it was time to step up the game with a truly professional toolset.

And by professional, we mean a camera that..

  1. Features Global Shutter (so that all the cameras can be unified and synchronized without potential offset)
  2. Can rely on external power vs just batteries
  3. Can capture data in high resolution
  4. Can be adjusted on the fly (shutter, frame rate etc), and
  5. Can be remotely monitored.
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Not only did the Facebook Surround 360 purport to have all of these features, the company said they would be open-sourcing the complete plans for VR professionals to build their own cameras. This is important to note because another tech giant claimed they would open source their VR system, got all the credit, and never actually released anything to the public.

The Adventure Begins

Prior to Facebook releasing the plans for the Surround 360 camera, we began sourcing materials by examining the conference photography released as part of the company’s marketing campaign. We quickly figured out that the camera bodies were manufactured by Point Grey (now Flir), and that the lenses were a mix of Sunex Primes matched with Fujinon fish-eyes for the top and bottom cameras.

With some hesitation and high hopes, we jumped in began ordering the parts we thought we might need. Our fear was that we had just committed a lot of money into a camera system without having yet seen any of the plans or blueprints. We hadn’t even seen a working product yet; so were in effect operating on pure faith.

And before long.. we were on the Surround 360 journey. If only it could have been that easy… 

 

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Sourcing Materials

When purchasing the items necessary to build the Surround 360, a few components need to be purchased in large quantities — the cameras themselves (17 in total), the lenses (14 Sunex and 3 Fujinon), the USB3 cables, and the GPIO connectors. Luckily, we only had to wait a few months for the camera bodies to become available. Although we could find them in smaller quantities… 4 here, a few there, finding 17 in one batch meant we had to wait for the manufacturer to build a fresh batch.

You might think sourcing the cameras would be most difficult, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult as finding the Fujinon lenses. Let’s put it this way, at one point we were ordering lenses from all over the world. We had a backorder for 3 lenses from B&H, 3 from Adorama, 3 from Amazon, we had purchased 4 from Amazon in Germany, 3  from the Netherlands, a few bids on what seemed to be the eBay equivalent in Japan, a family member in Japan personally searching in each camera shop and yes, even the West Coast regional sales office for Fuji searching for these lenses for us. In the end, we ended up paying over $4000 for lenses that should have cost us a little under $1500.

BUT… this is one reason we were, the first group outside of Facebook to have a fully operational Surround 360 rig. We had all the right parts before anyone else.

At one point we were ordering lenses from all over the world

Assembly

Facebook released the working plans on GitHub on July 26, 2016 and we were soon ready to build the complete system. Because there were so many moving parts in assembly, we took turns jumping in and building a few components at a time. In a round-robin fashion we completed a majority of the assembly in just a matter of weeks.

Final Output

After several weeks of in-lab testing, we were ready to embark on our first outdoor test. We gathered the crew and traveled along the California Coast capturing beautiful scenic imagery along the way.  From glorious sunsets to colossal waves,  we challenged the Surround 360 in all extremes.

We will be releasing scenes from our shoot in a few weeks after their initial premiere.

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