It's not often Mark Zuckerberg gets on a stage to endorse another company's product, especially a smartphone peripheral, but that's exactly what happened at Samsung's MWC keynote earlier this year.
Facebook's acquisition of Oculus has made it a big player in VR. However, the company now needs to bridge the chasm between a relatively tiny number of Rift-owning VR gaming enthusiasts and its core user base of 1.7 billion active Facebook users.
Samsung is Facebook's chosen partner for this tricky task. Its Oculus-powered Gear VR headset is squarely aimed at the mass market but content is limited and expensive to produce. Facebookthrives on free, user-generated content, so it's hardly surprising Samsung's 360-degree camera piqued Zuckerberg's interest; he even stated he would capture his new baby's first steps in 360-degree video.
The Samsung Gear 360 isn't just another smartphone peripheral then, it has the hopes and dreams of mass-adoption VR sitting in on its shoulders. No pressure.
The hardware itself certainly lives up to its 'next-big-thing' billing. Samsung's pearlescent-white orb is a brilliant piece of design, a spherical device to shoot spherical imagery. It looks like a movie prop too, something straight out of Tom Cruise's Oblivion.
The Samsung Gear 360 isn't the first 360-degree consumer camera, the Ricoh Theta line predated it by some three years and more recently there's been the LG 360 Cam. The Gear 360 uses the same basic principle, with two fish-eye lens and two image sensors, whose output is then stitched together to create a largely seamless 360-degree image, be that a still or video clip.
It's dust and splash resistant but WIRED wouldn't want to risk those big lenses on regular action-cam duties. It comes with a cloth bag to transport it in, so they don't get scratched up in your bag or pocket. It's around 60mm across and weighs just 153g.
Ricoh's Theta remains better designed for handheld use, with a grip and a shutter button well below the lenses, though it's still best used with a tripod, in WIRED's opinion. The Gear 360 comes complete with a mini tripod which has a standard screw for adding a bigger one if required. The tripod doubles up as a makeshift handgrip but the shutter/record button is on top so it's hardly ergonomic. It's not a big issue, though, as the Gear 360 is primarily designed to be controlled via its app.
To make full use of the Gear 360 you need to own a compatible Samsung smartphone - which connects via a combination of NFC, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct. Compatibility only goes back to last year, so it has to be a Galaxy S6 or S7 (including the Edge and Edge+ variants), Note 5 or the recent Note 7. Those with 'lesser' handsets, even including the 2016 A-series, are mysteriously locked out.
With such a handset you can control the 360 via a dedicated app. It's much like Samsung's usual camera app, but with a few extras. The ability to switch to a single lens for 180-degree images is handy when the whole vista isn't worth capturing. There's a timelapse mode too, which lends itself brilliantly to 360-degree imagery. Capturing the sun arcing overhead, or a busy street at night, is a real strength of the format.
All these can be accessed via the menu and tiny 1/2in OLED screen on the device itself, but it's fiddly. Having a connected smartphone also lets you see results straight away, by swiping around the 360-degree image or video. Without it, you're limited to shoot-and-hope efforts, transferring images to a PC later for editing and uploading. It's disappointing Samsung hasn't provided iPhone or broader Android support.
Sharing your content to YouTube and Facebook is as easy as uploading any image or video. Your friends can then view them via the service and pan around the image as desired. You can upload directly to Google Maps too, adding your panoramic images to the service for anyone to see.
Elsewhere, the technology is also compatible with the Google Street View app, allowing you to add content to the service. It's a bit fiddly to set up but once done you could add your village or business premises to Street View. You can keep these private or allow public access. If you're serious about Street View captures, you'll want to invest in a helmet with a camera mount on top.
If you own a Gear VR headset then watching clips and video straight from your own handset is a breeze via the Samsung apps on the headset. Of course not everyone has Samsung kit, but thanks to its YouTube support you can reach a much wider audience via headsets based around Google Cardboard or the upcoming Daydream standard.
Video quality isn't great; the Gear 360 shoots at 2,560x1600 by default with a 60fps option, which you should definitely take advantage of. Once stretched across a 360-degree sphere, though, it creates an image that's roughly analogous to slightly over-compressed standard definition video.
Even at 60fps, WIRED found the best results came when the Gear 360 was stationary, letting the action occur around it. Anything but the most gradual motion of the device itself really strained the limits of the video compression and made for uncomfortable viewing in VR. This is compounded by potential motion sickness, as the camera lurches around while you stay still.
It can also capture video at a sharper 3840x1920 resolution; but you can only make use of that, for viewing or upload, via the supplied PC software. Plus, it's only at 30fps.
Still images go up to a nicely-detailed 25.9-megapixels when stitched together, so they look sharp and realistic. The dual F2.0 lenses and 15-megapixel sensors are up to the standard you'd expect from a modern smartphone. However, you will often see a distinct line where the two images are stitched together, as each sensor calculates its exposure separately.
Unlike some of the best VR content available, there's no 3D here, as there is only one lens and one sensor on each side of the device. This does somewhat limit your immersion in the scene and is an obvious next-step for user-generated content. YouTube now also supports live-streamed, 360-degree video, so hopefully we might see support for that soon too.
The Gear 360 makes the best case yet for user-generated 360-degree imagery. That can be stills, timelapse or video, enjoyed onscreen or in VR – though VR video is somewhat held back by the device's technical limitations. It's the ease of use that really impresses, letting you show off your 360-degree holiday photos to friends online or in VR without any faff whatsoever.
Although getting those images just right isn't quite as easy as you might think.
Taking a 360-degree image should be simpler, as it removes the need to choose a subject and frame it. It's a more experiential form and it's a great match for VR in this respect. However, while WIRED could capture many interesting photos of say a garden BBQ - the guests, the summer sun filtering through a tree's leaves, close ups of the flames or food cooking - the whole 360-degree scene is often not as evocative.
That said, it's a brilliant addition to anyone's photographic arsenal; add a 360-degree image to any gallery and it really helps set the scene for your other shots. If you regularly visit interesting locales and can find somewhere good (and safe) to place it, then you can capture some fantastic video and timelapse imagery too.
At £349 it's a pretty hefty investment, but you'll likely already know if you're going to get your money's worth out of it. If you have a compatible Samsung handset and are keen on the idea, then there's really no reason not to buy a Gear 360. If nothing else, you'll make one of the world's richest men very happy indeed.