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A new immersive world for the lensman

By Zhou Mo in Shenzhen | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-01-14 06:41

When video-shooting or photo-taking with mobile phones becomes a ritual in young people's everyday life, taking place any time anywhere when they enjoy delicate food, reunite with old-time friends or travel with loved ones, Liu Jingkang believes there's a big market to be explored in the photographic field.

Competition in this area has focused mainly on image quality, with highly pressured smartphone manufacturers devoting great efforts to improve resolution of their cameras.

Liu, however, thinks there should be a more fundamental change.

He has come out with a 360-degree camera that is set to unveil a new immersive world for photographers.

Launched in late August, the chubby-looking and 82 gram-weighed Insta360 ONE shoots 360-degree videos and photos at resolutions of 4K and 24MP(mega pixel), respectively. The device is ready to work after connecting to a smartphone's charging port.

It is also workable with remote control via Bluetooth or standalone use.

Priced at 2,000 yuan ($302), the gadget features a groundbreaking Free Capture function, which allows users to shoot first and frame later, solving the difficulty of framing during sports.

After a spherical video is produced, recording every detail of an experience, users can point their phone into any piece of the 360-degree scene by leveraging their phone's onboard gyroscope.

The selected pieces are then translated into a standard 1,080p fixed-frame video, ready for users to share on social-networking platforms.

By using a selfie stick or a string attachment, users can unlock the camera's Bullet Time mode, capturing up to 240fps (frames per second) slow-motion shots where ONE circles them, with them being kept center-frame while the accessory is concealed.

"By opening up unique features in ONE, we hope to bring an all-new experience for anyone who is interested in photo shooting and make the process more exciting and enjoyable," says Liu, founder and chief executive officer of Shenzhen-based startup Arashi Vision Co — the enterprise behind ONE.

The idea of ONE stemmed from a 360-degree video shot from a helicopter by a Russian company. The spectacular images shocked Liu and his partners when they watched the video in mid-2014.

"It was amazing and breathtaking," Liu recalls. "Such kind of 360-degree videos, I thought, would be a good channel for photography enthusiasts to share their wonderful experiences. But to produce such a wonderful work required a number of cameras and a great deal of post-production efforts."

Having spotted the underlying opportunity, Liu transferred his entrepreneurial career from developing living-streaming mobile application to making cameras.

A graduate of Nanjing University — one of the Chinese mainland's prestigious universities in eastern Jiangsu province — Liu started the adventure with several classmates in the city of Nanjing where the university is located.

For research and development, the team bought electronic components from the "hardware kingdom" of Shenzhen or made prototypes there and transported them to Nanjing.

"The process was long and reduced our efficiency," Liu says. "Moreover, it was difficult to recruit hardware talents in Nanjing."

He then moved the team to Shenzhen and it grew rapidly.

In April 2016, the then two-year-old company secured several hundred million yuan worth of investment in its B-round funding, led by popular video and music file-sharing firm Xunlei.

A few months later, in August 2016, it won an additional investment from mainland retail giant Suning Commerce Group. Liu declined to reveal the exact figure, but said the investment amounted to tens of millions of yuan.

Marching into a competitive sector where strong rivals, including Ricoh Theta V and Samsung Gear 360, already exist, taking up a large share of the pie is not smooth sailing for a startup.

"We couldn't afford wasting a single minute. We had to race against the clock in order to be able to introduce our product to the market at the right time," stresses Liu.

He explains that sales of consumer electronics products, including ONE, usually have seasonal periods, with the fourth quarter of each year, which embraces Christmas and Black Friday, being the most suitable time to launch a product.

That is what Liu calls "consumption cycle".

From another aspect, "the earlier stage a technology stands at, the bigger attraction it has for consumers. That is 'technology cycle'," says the 26-year-old entrepreneur.

At present, about 80 percent of Arashi Vision's revenue comes from overseas, primarily the United States, Europe and Japan. In 2016, the company generated less than 100 million yuan in revenue. Liu forecast that the figure could reach 200 million yuan in 2017.

According to market research and consulting firm Research Nester, the global 360-degree camera market is projected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 34.4 percent over the next seven years.

Asia Pacific is expected to see the fastest growth, thanks to high adoption of virtual reality technologies in Japan and China, the report said.

"As the focus of virtual reality gradually turns from hardware development to content creation, the 360-degree camera industry is expected to see new opportunities," said Liu Tiancheng, chief executive officer of Idealoeye, a company focusing on the development of 360-degree visual technology.

"But the complexity of video post-production and editing comes as a high cost for ordinary consumers. Therefore, the growth engine for the industry will not be on the consumer, but the commercial side."

Liu takes a more positive view. "The 360-degree camera hasn't developed into a very big market yet. But there are huge opportunities to explore if we expand its application scenarios to a wider range of fields, for example, sports."

Shrugging off the challenge from GoPro, one of the world's most popular sports cameras, Liu says the company will step up efforts to promote ONE to be applied in the sports scenario and to become a favorite among sports lovers.

"Although we are now lagging behind GoPro, I'm highly confident we can catch up with it over the next few years," he says.

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