In the past, 360-degree cameras have been standalone devices with their own lenses, sensors, image processors, batteries, and cases. Not anymore. Essential’s first smartphone accessory, the Essential 360˚ Camera, makes spherical photography just a little more convenient by pairing camera and phone. Yes, it's a smartphone add-on, but make no mistake: The Essential 360˚ Camera boasts a lot of impressive tech.
For the young smartphone manufacturer Essential, this camera is one hell of an extra credit project. It's intended to demonstrate the versatility of the company's Click docking system, which uses magnets and a wireless USB connection to mate phone to accessory. The camera, which costs $50 if purchased with the new Essential Phone or $199 on its own, will be the first device available with a Click connector. So it’s an important test of how well the system works.
In practice, the physical link between phone and add-on works as it should. The magnetic docking action feels secure, but it still detaches easily. The lollipop-shaped camera changes the handling characteristics of the Essential Phone, but not enough to make it feel dangerously off-balance. (In case you were wondering: Essential's camera only works with its own devices due to the proprietary connection.)
In order to make the shots appear convincingly spherical, it’s critical that a 360-degree camera can seamlessly stitch the two ultra wide angle photos into one. Most consumer systems use automated stitching algorithms to join the two images, and I was very pleased with what Essential's software engineers pulled off. The stitching was only just barely visible in stills I captured with the camera. For a first-generation product, I was impressed that the Essential camera's output was able to hang with photos from more mature, bulkier devices like the Ricoh Theta.
Its discrete imaging processor churns through the dual image streams in near real-time, which is no easy feat. This second processor necessitates a teeny-tiny fan inside the camera module. Unfortunately, it’s audible, but the high-pitched fan switches off when you’re shooting 360-degree video.
Like many 360 cameras, the image quality is somewhat grainy compared to a still. Even though the camera outputs an 18.4-megapixel spherical photo, the details disappear quickly and dynamic range is limited as soon as you start to zoom in. Video has the same problem, even with the camera's silky-smooth 4K/30p output. Capturing the entire scene is nifty, but not when it comes at the price of diminished image quality.
Essential says there are updates that'll unlock 360-degree livestreaming in just a couple of weeks, so this camera still has some room to grow. But even in a near-final state, I think it's a successful demo of what Essential's team can pull off. Should everyone who gets an Essential phone run out and buy this? Probably not. But it's a tantalizing taste of what's to come from this ambitious hardware startup.