Hands on Ricoh's Theta, a personal 'Street View' camera

Ricoh's panoramic Theta camera fits right in your pocket

Ricoh's Theta panoramic camera on show at IFA 2013 in Berlin

Ricoh's Theta panoramic camera on show at IFA 2013 in Berlin

Imagine being able to take all-round pictures like those seen in Google's Street View from a small camera you can carry around in your pocket. That's the promise of Ricoh's Theta, a sleek panoramic camera launched at this week's IFA electronics show in Berlin.

The camera is intended for both consumer and professional users alike and I got to try it out at the show.

Theta is long and thin and doesn't look much like any other camera. It's about as long as a smartphone but isn't as wide and is quite a bit thicker. It's most striking feature is a fisheye lens toward the top of the device. It's matched by one on the rear and its through these that the camera can take pictures that extend almost 360 degrees in any direction.

There are only three buttons on its body: about halfway up its body is one for the shutter and on the side are buttons to switch on and off the power and Wi-Fi connection.

Using it is easy. Because it takes an all-around picture, you don't need to worry which way it is facing and just have to consider what's around it.

There are two ways of taking pictures. The shutter button on the camera body will snap an image and store it in the Theta's microSD card, but you'll have more fun using a dedicated app on your cellphone.

When the shutter button on the app is pressed, the camera takes a picture and then transfers it to the phone over a Wi-Fi Direct connection. The software acts as an image viewer and lets you explore the picture you just took and share it online with services like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Taking pictures with the Theta requires a bit of a change in the way you visualize your intended image. Instead of what's in front of the camera, you need to consider what's all around it so, for example, a picture of a group of friends works best if they are sitting around the camera rather than all lined up on one side.

It's certainly a fun twist on the conventional pictures we all take on vacation, at parties and perhaps for work.

I had a chance to speak to the Theta's designer, Hidenao Ubukata, general manager of Ricoh's visual revolution unit, and he explained how it works.

Behind each lens is a 2-megapixel image sensor and they both snap a picture at the same time. The two images are stitched together in the device to make an equirectangular JPEG image with 2,000 pixel by 1,000 pixel resolution. Equi-rectangular projection is best known as the projection method used to show the Earth's sphere on 2D maps.

That image is then transferred to the phone, where it is mapped onto a sphere to re-create the all-around image. The image capturing process takes about three seconds and then it takes another five seconds or so to send the image to the phone.

Ubukata said he anticipates the Theta's first users will be digital creatives and they are the people who will probably hit upon new uses for this style of photography, which isn't new but has never been so easy.

The camera will be available in October and will cost US$399. The software is compatible with iOS and an Android version will be released before the end of the year.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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