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So You Want To Build An Inexpensive VR Drone

So You Want To Build An Inexpensive VR Drone

How To Build An Inexpensive VR Drone

360° video is on the rise — literally.

With the billion-dollar seal of approval of publishers like Facebook, Youtube and the New York Times, seasoned filmmakers and greenhorns alike are hot at the heels of this new technology. However, the high costs and technical know-how needed to pull it off are significant barriers to entry. Or so we thought — until we met Ben Kreimer.

Most 360° video rigs require at least 6 GoPro cameras, or a $15,000 price tag. But Ben, through his latest project at Buzzfeed Open Lab, says he’s built the cheapest drone 360° rig on the market, for only $1500 — $2000. And it’s open source. Meaning, he’s giving away his prototype, for free. How is this possible? Let’s ask Ben.

Ben Kreimer, BuzzFeed Open Lab Fellow and former head technologist for the Drone Journalism Lab and African SkyCAM, is a journalism technologist.

As Ben says, “the drone is a vehicle you can use to move the camera through a space. It takes you to interesting places and inspires new ways to tell stories.”

Ben believes in using off-the-shelf tools in order to make it as low-cost and accessible as possible. However, Ben believes his methods do not reduce the quality of the tech.

For example, the Theta M15, and VSN’s Mobil V. 360° are relatively cheap, but according to Ben, their image quality just doesn’t cut it. On the other hand, Google’s Jump VR camera system will give you good quality 360° video. But its $15,000 price tag means that, for most budgets, it just won’t fly.

Ben was determined to build a 360° camera rig that’s lightweight enough to mount on his DJI Phantom 2 drone.

What’s the secret? Apparently there isn’t any, literally — it’s open source. All you need to pull it off is two GoPro 3+ Black cameras ($698), two M12 185-degree lenses ($169), one GoPro Dual Hero System ($199.99), one GoPro Mini USB to RCA Composite Cable ($19.99), and plumbers tape ($2), for a total of $1,088.98. But don’t get out your B&H card just yet, you also need a drone ($459.49); video-stitching software ($109 — $220) and composite 360° video editing software ($330 — $661); and a 3D printer to print out Ben’s custom designed camera mount. At least the last part is free. You can download Ben’s mount design here, absolutely free of charge. In total, the whole shebang is going to set you back $1,987 — $2,429 (plus any 3D printing costs), for a complete “starter kit.”

There’s just one tiny, potential glitch: a small seam that is visible in the 360° video footage that is more apparent when the camera is close to something than when it is focused on objects in the distance. However, Ben claims that this isn’t a problem with his prototype in particular. He points out that even the New York Times has had trouble with this rebellious seam in their recent 360° VR work. Moreover, Ben’s working on it. With each new version of his mount design, Ben’s prototype produces a much better video stitch and higher quality output video.

And here’s some food for thought: does this seam, or the “perfect stitch” even matter? Another way to pose this question is, does immersive video require perfect staging and editing such that all traces of the production are removed from the experience, or could it entail a glance “behind the scenes”? This is a contestable point. Unlike the New York Times, Ben believes in letting the proverbial seams show. Instead of hiding the tripod shadow and editing out the noise of the drone rotors, Ben believes in keeping these elements in the shot, in addition to having the reporting team on camera. According to him, it adds an element of transparency to the experience, making it altogether more immersive.

Regardless of which school of thought you ascribe to, the possibilities of this new technology for visual storytelling can at times seem daunting. What’s Ben’s advice for navigating this new field? Basically, go big or go home. In his words:

“People are calling their work experiments — people are not taking it seriously, rolling it out into their normal workflow. Go out, do a story with it and grapple with its possibilities.”

Got it, thanks Ben. Up, up and away!