During YouTube's keynote presentation at CES, GoPro (GPRO -1.57%) CEO Nick Woodman announced plans to launch a "more casual" spherical action camera for mainstream consumers. The device would complement GoPro's "Jump" partnership with Alphabet (GOOG 1.27%) (GOOGL 1.36%), which encourages content creators to capture 360-degree video and share it on YouTube's 360 channel. Viewers can swipe through a scene or view it in virtual reality with a headset like Google Cardboard.
This isn't the first time GoPro has partnered with YouTube to create VR content. Last year, it announced two spherical rigs which use multiple GoPro cameras to capture 360 degree videos -- the 16-camera Odyssey and the six-camera Spherical. However, the Odyssey Rig costs a whopping $15,000 while the Spherical costs at least $3,000. If GoPro wants to mainstream consumers to produce 360-degree videos, it needs to launch a single device which can natively capture spherical video at a reasonable price. Such a device could possibly be attached to its upcoming Karma drone to record 360-degree aerial videos.
Follower or innovator?
While launching a single 360-degree camera makes sense for GoPro, several rivals already unveiled similar devices at CES. Kodak -- which launched its first 360-degree camera in late 2014 -- revealed the PixPro SP360, a $499 device which can film 360-degree videos in 4K. Nikon revealed the KeyMission 360, which also films spherical 4K content. Other smaller players like Ricoh and 360fly have also released similar consumer grade cameras. All these devices challenge the notion that multiple camera rigs, which can help GoPro sell more cameras simultaneously, are required to film high-quality 360 degree videos.
They also suggest that GoPro, which created the action camera category by itself, is becoming a follower instead of an innovator. For example, several third party manufacturers were already selling multiple-camera GoPro rigs for filming VR content before GoPro announced its Odyssey and Spherical rigs. GoPro likewise only became interested in drones after filmmakers started mounting its cameras on the flying devices.
Could cannibalization and confusion occur?
Last year, GoPro arguably muddied up its product line by adding two new low-end devices and slashing the price of its high-end Session from $400 to $200. This scattergun approach might reach more consumers at multiple price points, but adding a 360-degree camera to the mix might cannibalize existing cameras and confuse consumers.
First, launching a single 360-degree camera renders GoPro's plan of selling six-camera rigs to aspiring VR filmmakers with limited budgets obsolete. Second, a 360-degree camera could either steal the thunder from GoPro's anticipated "Hero 5" flagship devices, or get lost in the shuffle between its high-end and low-end devices. Lastly, if GoPro prices and markets its 360-degree camera poorly -- as it did with the Session -- mainstream consumers might never really understand its capabilities.
Can Alphabet and Facebook generate market demand?
Like Alphabet's YouTube, Facebook (META 2.09%) also believes that 360-degree videos and VR content will achieve mainstream acceptance in the near future. Facebook recently introduced 360-degree videos, and it produces VR films through its Oculus Story Studio for its upcoming Oculus VR headset.
The backing of the world's biggest video site and social network should boost the visibility of 360-degree videos and convince more mainstream customers to produce them. That, in turn, will fuel demand for 360-degree capture devices. GoPro's own channel, which has over 3.6 million subscribers on YouTube, could be the ideal showcase for these videos.
Lots of promises, few results
But before investors get too excited, we should remember that GoPro made plenty of promises which have yet to be fulfilled. When the company went public in June 2014, it claimed that it could scale itself as "a media entity and develop new revenue opportunities by increasing production of GoPro originally produced content." Last June, CEO Nick Woodman claimed that GoPro was building "an iTunes type management system" tethered to the cloud to make it easier to back up and trim content. GoPro still doesn't generate meaningful revenues from its media network, and has yet to reveal an "iTunes-like" backup system for its photos and videos.
More recently, GoPro teased a video filmed by its drone, but didn't reveal any additional details. So in my opinion, GoPro's announcement of a 360-degree camera falls into the same category as those previous promises -- I'll evaluate its market potential when I actually see a product.
The key takeaway
For now, analysts expect GoPro's fourth quarter revenue to fall 19% annually, due to its glaring lack of new flagship devices during the holidays. Its fiscal 2016 revenue is only expected to rise 12% annually, down from 21% growth in 2015 and 41% growth in 2014. A drone, 360-degree camera, and new flagship cameras might get its sales moving in the right direction again, but GoPro needs to move fast before all three markets are conquered by more nimble competitors.