Facebook is partnering with camera maker RED to develop a professional-grade virtual reality camera system that can capture high-resolution imagery in so-called 6DoF, or six degrees of freedom, which allows it to be viewed and explored in real time within virtual reality. The rig, which doesn’t yet have pricing or release date info available, is a culmination of Facebook’s internal efforts on its Surround 360 platform. RED’s upcoming VR camera will now be the one Facebook suggests to filmmakers and other creators who want to make the most high-fidelity, immersive entertainment and art. The news was announced today at Facebook’s F8 developer conference.
“A year ago we set out to find a hardware partner to help us deliver this technology,” says Brian Cabral, a director of engineering at Facebook specializing in computational photography. Facebook needed not just “the image quality we wanted,” but also the workflow that would let creators easily capture necessary photography and video on set, and be able to transfer that to the necessary software that would then stitch it together and help create VR-ready experiences, or what Cabral calls a “photon to photon” experience.
For the last two years, Facebook has been basically advising the camera industry on what such a camera would look like. The Surround 360 launch, back in 2016, involved launching an open-source spec sheet and hardware design document for a device with a 17-camera array for VR capture. The idea was to help camera makers, and other companies with the industrial and consumer tech manufacturing experience, actually physically produce a product, which those companies could then sell and in turn help more filmmakers and creators produce VR content.
Facebook, at the time, didn’t want to put its name on a device or sell it direct to consumers. Rather, the company wanted to jumpstart VR creation so consumers actually had content to consume if they bought a Oculus Rift headset or wanted to access 360-video posts or other social video products on mobile. A year later, the Surround 360 team released an updated VR camera design with a 24-camera array, as well as a lighter 6-camera array model. Those cameras were capable of capturing 8K video and capturing content in 6DoF, which greatly increases the immersive quality of VR video by letting viewers move naturally as if in a completely virtual world.
“We’ve taken all of our learnings over the past two years and all of our cameras and algorithm development to… inform a lot of our decisions on both our partnerships and the design of the cameras,” Cabral says. “We’ve also listened to a lot of people who use our prototypes and others to incorporate all the learnings in the industry to shoot with VR cams. A lot of the feedback we get is how easy to use it on set.”
Now, with its partnership with RED, it seems Facebook has finally found a company with a reputation in Hollywood and indie filmmaking circles for its technical mastery to push high-end VR video closer to the mainstream. Cabral says the camera is designed for professional storytellers. “The idea is to enable the best storytellers and give them the best equipment,” he adds.
Facebook and RED don’t yet have an image of working a prototype or render of the product to share, and RED will decide at a later date how expensive the camera will be. But given that RED cameras typically scale from $5,000 to $15,000 to even $50,000 — the company last fall announced an $80,000 8K model — we can only assume this camera will be very expensive. Still, for Facebook, the more high-end VR content that’s out in the world, the more attractive its Oculus and video-centric Facebook Watch platforms become.