I have been shooting stitched panoramas for almost 20 years. I have used manual panorama heads like the Kaidan Kiwi+ and more recently the pocketPANO Compact, robotic heads like the Gigapan EPIC 100, and four successive generations of the Ricoh Theta (Theta, Theta S, Theta V, Theta Z1).

Setting up and iterating a manual head is incredibly tedious. The Gigapan makes it less so, specially when using long lenses (my standard setup is a Leica M typ 240 or M10 with a 90mm f/2 Apo-Summicron-M ASPH). The Theta series was a major breakthrough in that it could produce nearly seamless 360° panoramas with no motion artifacts or ghosting. The Z1 with its large 1″ sensor finally yields image quality that I am happy with.

The viewing situation has also improved. In the early days you needed Java applets or dubious plug-ins. Nowadays, it can all be done in HTML5 with the aid of JavaScript libraries like Panellum. The user experience is still one of scrolling an image through a rectangular viewport in browser window. The experience on mobile is a bit better because it can use the accelerometer so you scroll by panning with your phone or tablet. It’s still not a fully immersive experience.

This Friday Facebook announced a price drop for its Oculus Go VR headset, the entry-level 32GB model being at a near-impulse purchase price of $150, and of course I yielded to the impulse. I had bought the original Oculus Rift to get a sense of what the potential of VR was, but tethered to a beefy PC, it made for impressive demos but not much more.

The Oculus Go changes this completely because it is standalone (it has the guts of a midrange smartphone circa 2018) and affordable. One of the ways they kept costs down is by removing motion tracking: it can detect angular motions of your head, but not when you are walking around, but for purposes of viewing 360° panoramic stills and videos, that is not required.

One of my concerns was how deeply it would be tied to the Facebook privacy-mangling machine. My New Year’s resolution for 2019 was to delete my FB account (my 2020 resolution was to switch all my digital camera clocks to UTC and never again bother with the abomination that is Daylight Saving Time)—underpromise and overdeliver, that’s my motto… Any requirement to have a FB account would be a total deal-breaker for me.

The second concern was how much of a hassle it would be to set up and use with my own photos. Camera-makers are not known for outstanding software and Ricoh is no exception. There is an Oculus third-party app for Theta cameras, but it hasn’t been updated in ages and only lists Theta S compatibility.

I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly it went. You can avoid the FB account by using an Oculus account (I used mine from the Rift), and no additional apps are required. Just install the Android File Transfer utility if you are on a Mac, copy the files to the headset’s Pictures directory. I would recommend using subfolders because the built-in Gallery app is not smart about caching thumbnails and is very slow at regenerating the view if there are more than about 20 images or so in a folder.

The image quality is not exceptional. Mike Abrash, who worked on the ground-breaking 3D game Quake, and is now Chief Scientist at Oculus, says fully immersive VR requires resolution halfway between 4K and 8K in each eye (vs. 2.5K shared for both eyes on the Go), and is at least a decade away. The immersive nature of the Go does provide that elusive Wow! factor, however, and more than makes up for its designed-to-a-budget shortcomings. The 2560×1440 display with an apparent field of view of 100° yields 3.7MP in the FOV but spherical trigonometry calculations reveal the entire 360° sphere would require a 26MP image to cover it entirely, which is slightly more than the 23MP images the Theta Z1 delivers. Fully immersive VR requires very high resolutions!

It even handles video transparently (you do have to convert Theta videos from the native format to equirectangular projection video with Ricoh’s app, which is excruciatingly slow). Keep in mind that video sizes are large, and with a 32GB model, there are limits to how much you can store on the device. If you plan to view immersive videos, the 64GB model is highly recommended.

The Oculus Go also has a “Cast” feature that will stream what the person wearing the headset is seeing to the phone it is paired with. You can have a friend wear the headset and narrate what they are seeing, I tried this with my architect mother-in-law as I was showing her the sights in Jerusalem, much to her delight (her master’s thesis at SOAS was on the Dome of the Rock). The Go has a unique sound projector developed by Oculus that means the user doesn’t have to wear earbuds, and can hear you speak. I would recommend you change the default display sleep time from the ridiculously short 15 seconds to 3 to 5 minutes, so you can swap the headeet without losing the cast session or resetting the app. Sadly, the battery life is nothing to write home about. I would guesstimate it at 1 to 2 hours, tops.

I still need to figure how to share my 360° VR photos using WebVR so other people can view them from their own Oculus Go (or other headsets).

One essential accessory for the Z1 or another similar 360° camera is a selfie stick or similar implement, otherwise your hands will appear prominently in the final panorama. Ricoh sells three models.

The TM-1 is a very well designed tripod (rumored to be made by Velbon) with a magnetic quick-release mount. It’s easy to deploy with one click, unlike a conventional tripod, and fully extended the camera is at eye height for a natural perspective.

The TM-3 is a short telescopic stick. It’s long enough that your hands no longer appear in the picture but low-profile enoough that the TM-3 itself is invisible. It is well-made, unlike most generic Chinese selfie sticks, unlocks and locks with a simple twist, and the TS-2 case for the Z1 has an opening at the bottom so you don’t need to detach it before putting the camera back in its case, a nice touch.

The TM-2 is a longer version of the TM-3 with an unnecessary swivel head, I haven’t tried it but the swivel head would defeat the invisible factor.