I've seen the future. And it mostly works. On Saturday number one wife was injudicious enough to let me roam unsupervised down Tottenham Court Road, one of the more gadgety parts of London. Of course I came back with something. It's actually something I saw at the Gadget Show Live, but at the time I didn't think I knew enough about the device to be sure it was worth bothering with.
Anyhoo, with a bit of background research and a slight price drop I was able to nip into a shop and emerge with a Ricoh Theta S. It's a camera, but it does something that no other camera I've seen can do. It takes a full 360 panoramic picture in one shot. It is fitted with two wide angle lenses which are back to back. Each of them gives a 190 degree field of view, which means that there is enough overlap for two images to be stitched together to form the panorama.
This is what a raw image looks like. The horrible pink bit along the bottom is my thumb and hand. It seems that things automatically know what to do with these images; when I uploaded one to Flickr it automatically uses a panoramic viewer when the image is opened. There's also a viewer you can use for your PC (which seems to produce higher quality images than the browser based ones) and an app for your phone (iPhone or Android) that you can use via WiFi to configure the camera, take pictures and download and view the shots. You can even display them as two images that you can pan around, which is perfect for Google Cardboard or the Samsung VR headset.
As far as image quality is concerned it is not great shakes. I think a good phone camera could probably out-perform it. However, you can set the ISO value (lower is better) and it has some HDR settings that improve things a bit. The images are fairly sharp, particularly close up, but I don't think the lenses have any form of aperture control and the shutters are electronic.
However, for me the thing is not the absolute quality, but the fact that it can do this wonderful thing at all. I've had great fun playing with it. The pictures you get really give you a feeling of being there like no single image can. You can take video (although the quality is not that great) and you can also attach the camera to your PC and live stream 360 degree video. You can send your images up to Google Streetview to add detail to places on the map. There's even an api that you can use to control the camera from your own software, and Ricoh seem pretty active with firmware upgrades and new software features. There are even some "professional" (i.e. expensive) things for sale in the App Store which take bracketed exposures and use them to create game environments.
There one hardware issue with the device itself that you need to be aware of though. The two lenses at the top stick out in a way that invites trouble. It's pretty much impossible to put the device down on a table without it being open to expensive damage. I've 3D printed a cover for the top which helps a bit, and I'll try to create a proper case of some kind. The device itself is pleasingly chunky and very well made apart from that though. It has 8Gb of storage built in, enough for more than a thousand pictures or 25 minutes or so of video. Using it makes you feel a bit of an idiot though (or at least it did me). I ended up holding it on my head, which made me look very strange.
But I think when people see what this can do they'll want one. I also think that it would be a perfect feature to add on to a phone, if you could find a way of getting the field of view without the protruding lenses. It makes every picture into a selfie; but not in a particularly bad way. I know that whenever I go anywhere from now on I'll take this with me and get shots that I could not get any other way. Well worth a look if you want to see what everyone will be using in a couple of years.