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The Orah 4i camera makes live 360-degree videos a reality

Get ready for live VR.
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There are a few options out there for creating 360-degree video. Consumers like you and me would likely go for a portable camera like the Ricoh Theta or Kodak's SP360. Professionals, on the other hand, would opt for Google's 16-camera GoPro Jump rig, Lytro's Immerge or Nokia's Ozo. But there aren't too many options for those who want something in between, something that is higher quality than the handheld models but isn't quite as expensive as the pro ones. Additionally, none of these options livestream; they all require you to take out a memory card and do postproduction work to stitch it all together. The Orah 4i, however, aims to solve both issues. It's apparently the first-ever prosumer-level 360-degree cam to also support live video.

The company behind this camera is VideoStitch, which actually makes and sells 360-video-stitching software for those aforementioned rigs. The Orah 4i essentially utilizes that same software but for stitching the videos live and on the fly. As you can see in the image above, the 4i is a lot smaller than any of the professional rigs mentioned, and it's a lot more portable. It measures about 3.1 x 2.7 x 2.5 inches and weighs only 17 ounces, which makes it light enough to put in a backpack. It's made out of 100 percent anodized "precipitation-hardened" aluminum, and it comes with four fisheye 8-layer f2.0 lenses and four Sony Exmore image sensors. There are four microphones in it for capturing four-channel "ambisonic" sound, so that you'll know where the sound is coming from if you're watching it in a VR rig. Oh, and it captures and streams all of that video in 4k.

I had the chance to preview the hardware, and it struck me as a surprisingly small piece of camera for all that it purports to do. That said, it requires you to attach it to what VideoStitch is calling a "Stitching Box," which is essentially a single-purpose computer dedicated to stitching together the 360 video. The box has an Intel CPU, an Nvidia GeForce GPU and an 120GB SSD. Also aboard are four USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports, dual Gigabit LAN, WiFi 802.11 ac/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.

In our demo, the Orah 4i was attached to the Stitch Box via a single Ethernet cable. From there, CEO Nicolas Burtey had paired it with an app on his phone, which he used to set up the livestream. The idea here, according to Burtey, is that you'd be able to log in to Facebook, YouTube or some other streaming platform on the app and then start streaming that way. I tried on a Samsung Gear VR with demo-streaming software and was suddenly able to see myself being livestreamed in 360 degrees, which was a surreal and bizarre experience.

There are a few caveats, however. For starters, even though VideoStitch says the Orah streams its videos live, there is a 30-second delay. That would work in most instances but might not be so great if you're a video journalist trying to cover a breaking news event. Another is that the Orah is not truly portable, because the Stitch Box requires a power source. That said, Daniel Doornink, VideoStitch's VP of Strategic Partnerships, told me that you could hook up the box to a battery pack, which would make it mobile. Last, the Orah 4i isn't exactly cheap. It will retail around $3,600, though the company is running a promotion right now where it's only $1,800.

"We're not targeting Hollywood with this," said Doornink. "Neither are we for the consumer. We are in the middle. This is for the prosumer, for professionals who want to livestream video." For example, you could livestream 360-degree videos from weddings, concerts or sporting events, all without needing a multiperson crew. With the Orah 4i, you could just do it yourself. "It's the DSLR of 360 cameras, but with live streaming too," said Doornink.

As for live 360, well, none of the major services like Facebook, YouTube and Periscope offer it right now. But Doornink said the time is coming. "Facebook already offers 360 videos," he said. "And it also now offers Live. The two will eventually come together." He gave an example of Facebook Event pages that might eventually have live videos accompanying them. Seeing as Facebook has recently ramped up its Live video efforts significantly, it won't be surprising if this does become a reality.

Still, $3,600 is a lot of money. Our own video producer pointed out that most people probably watch 360-degree videos on their phones, in which case something like a cheaper Ricoh Theta or a consumer-level camera would do just fine. Still, Doornink believes that as VR rigs like the Gear VR and the Oculus Rift become more mainstream, the demand to consume high-quality 360-degree videos on them will increase.

"We think there will be usecases for this," he said. "It is the only total solution." The Orah 4i is available for pre-order starting today and will ship later this year.

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