Samsung's (OTC:SSNLF) next major product isn't a smartphone or a TV.
Late last month, the hardware giant released its first virtual reality camera, the Gear 360, in its home market of Korea, and plans to bring it to the U.S. and Europe in the coming weeks. The Gear 360 certainly isn't the first VR camera on the market, but it's far more affordable than many of its rivals, and it should make it possible for average consumers to create and share virtual reality content.
A new type of camera
About 80% of Americans now own smartphones, and virtually all are capable of taking pictures and recording video. But no modern smartphone can record a video designed for VR, and taking a VR photo is cumbersome and difficult. If VR is going to emerge as the next great medium, consumers will need new sorts of cameras to create content.
Enter the Gear 360. Resembling a large golf ball, the device is equipped with two wide-angle lenses. That allows it to take photos and record video across a full 360 degrees. In Korea, the Gear 360 retails for about 400,000 won, or about $340. U.S. and European pricing has not been confirmed, but somewhere between $300 and $400 seems likely.
Other virtual reality cameras are out there, but most are an order of magnitude more expensive. GoPro's Odyssey retails for about $15,000, for example, while its upcoming Omni goes for $5,000. There are cheaper options, such as the Ricoh Theta S and the recently released LG 360 CAM, but they lack Samsung's reputation, branding, and massive marketing budget, and don't feed into Samsung's burgeoning VR ecosystem.
A compelling accessory for the Galaxy S7
You won't need a Galaxy S7 to use the Gear 360. It's capable of working as a stand-alone device. The videos and pictures it takes can be sent to an internal SD card, and can be transferred to a Windows PC and ultimately shared online. But if you do happen to own a Galaxy S7, it will sync with your handset, allowing you to use it as a sort of remote control. Moreover, once you've recorded photos and videos, you'll need some way to view them. Samsung's Gear VR headset stands as the most obvious solution.
When Samsung reported earnings late last month, it said sales of its Galaxy S7 came in stronger than the company had anticipated. Perhaps consumers were enticed by the phone's waterproofing or its microSD card slot, but many may have been attracted by the prospect of experiencing VR. To date, Samsung's Gear has a near monopoly on high-quality, affordable VR experiences, as competing headsets like Facebook's Oculus Rift retail for many hundreds of dollars and require more-powerful-than-usual PCs to operate properly.
Facebook and Google are committed to VR content
But ultimately, the companies that could benefit the most from the Gear 360 are Google and Facebook, as they vie to own the networks where VR content will be shared. Last fall, Facebook added VR support to its News Feed, allowing publishing partners and users to share 360-degree videos. When a Gear 360 is paired with a Galaxy S7, users can upload the videos they've taken with it directly to Facebook.
Google's commitment stretches back even further -- it added support for 360-degree YouTube videos early last year. Earlier this month, at Google I/O, the company announced Daydream, a VR initiative that promises to make many future Android phones VR compatible. In conjunction with Daydream, Google will release a version of the YouTube app designed specifically for VR headsets. Traditional videos could benefit from a more intimate viewing experience, but adding more 360-degree videos would make VR YouTube far more compelling.
VR headsets are far from ubiquitous, but they're out there. The cameras needed to make VR content, however, are considerably more rare. The Gear 360 may ultimately be the most revolutionary new product Samsung releases this year, helping bring VR content creation to the mainstream.