At a friend's recent barbecue, I held a stick-like device and pressed a button in its center over a table full of freshly grilled meat. A little warp sound went off, but no flash. No, I didn't erase everyone's memory, Men In Black-style, a la the film's fictional memory erasing neuralyzer.
Everyone wondered in awe at what had just happened. To puzzled looks and blank stares, I explained to them I had just taken a photo of all of them — a 360 degree scrollable and zoomable photo orb, to be precise — at once with the press of a button using a new camera called the Ricoh THETA.
Not Your Typical Camera
The THETA is unlike any camera in both design and function. It looks nothing like a typical camera. The 5.08 x 1.65 x 0.9-inch camera is the epitome of restraint. Aside from a twin-lens optical lens that looks like two fish eyes, a shutter button smack in the middle on one side, and a power and Wi-Fi button on the right side, there isn't anything else.
It doesn't even have a screen. There is a tripod mount on the bottom and a covered flap that reveals a micro USB port for charging, and that's it.
One Trick Pony
Unlike regular cameras that shoot high resolution photos and record HD video, the THETA does only one thing: it takes "spherical scenes" (Ricoh's language, not ours), or photo spheres, not unlike the ones you can make with popular smartphone apps such as PhotoSynth and Photo Sphere. The spheres are saved to the THETA's 4GB of internal storage, and from there, can be transferred to any iOS device running iOS 6 via a free app (an Android app will be released by the end of the year.)
Here is a sample photo sphere taken with the THETA seen from two different angles using the app:
The key difference between the THETA and those smartphone apps is that it generates a photo sphere without any panning action on the user's part. You hold the THETA up and press the shutter button, and poof, the entire scene is captured into a manipulable photo sphere.
The THETA's 4GB of storage is good for storing around 1,200 photo orbs with battery lasting for around 200 captures. The camera's image capture is fast and without any extraneous buttons or dials, using the THETA is practically idiot-proof.
While we understand the appeal to the THETA is its one-click simplicity, we weren't blown away by the image quality. Ricoh refused to provide any specific megapixel or resolution information, and we weren't able to extract the data from the photo orbs or transfer the images to a computer — the Mac app wasn't working — to view them at higher resolutions (the sample images in this review are screenshots from an iPhone), but from what we could tell, the image quality is pretty average.
The photo spheres look sharp on a 4-inch iPhone screen, but when you zoom in on them, you can easily see all the graininess to them. Shooting photo spheres in low-light or at night is also out of the question, since the amount of visible pixel noise is even greater.
Image quality aside, there's definitely an addictive appeal to being able to adjust a photo sphere's angle and crop it, like we've done in this image.
Then, there's the whole matter of your arm and hand always showing up in your photo spheres. It's funny at first, but then it just gets tiring to see your hand wrapped around the THETA in every picture. Of course, you can get around the whole arm-and-hand-in-your-photo-sphere problem by using the THETA app to remotely trigger the shutter, but even then, you'll see some stitching overlap sometimes.
Overall, the THETA takes photo spheres with slightly higher resolution than ones stitched together by a smartphone app, but not by much. If you lower your expectation a little, the THETA is a fun little gadget to use, especially for making planetoid images.
THETA App For iOS
Taking photo spheres is really easy thanks to the THETA's simplistic design, but not being able to see the photo spheres instantly is a little disappointing. The only way to actually view the captured spheres is by connecting the THETA to an iOS device via Wi-Fi and using the THETA app.
Connecting the THETA to an iOS device is also darn easy, however. And the app, too, is very straightforward. After the THETA is paired with an iOS device, newly taken photo spheres appear, sorted by date, in the "Camera" album. Little circle thumbnails populate the page and can then be selected and transferred over from the THETA's internal storage to the "In App" album in the THETA app.
The instruction manual lists support for sharing the photo spheres to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and Ricoh's press release says they're shareable to Tumblr and Microsoft's Photosynth, too, but we didn't get to try any sharing due to to the pre-release iOS app we were running.
In its current form, the THETA is still a novelty. It does too little and costs too much. We appreciate that the THETA is very user friendly and creating 360-degree photo orbs is certainly entertaining, but it's a one-trick pony that costs $399. You have to really, really want to take photo spheres badly to buy one of these.
It would be a different story if the THETA also shot 360-degree video orbs (which would probably be a lot trickier). How cool would it be to record 360-degree video orbs that we would be able to pan and zoom around? It'd kill the GoPro.
Ricoh has real guts for selling such an odd camera. The THETA is easily one of the quirkiest cameras we've used in years and we could see it finding a niche amongst documenters or used as a low-cost Street View mapping solution, but only if the price comes down by at least half.