Lucid bets on 180 degrees for virtual reality

Creating video content for virtual reality is a bit awkward. When a camera shoots in 360 degrees, that means the director, and anyone else who shouldn’t be in the shot, has to be out of sight. And then there is the problem of getting the viewer to look at the right place at the right time.

Lucid, a Fremont, Calif.-based startup that hopes to release its first product at the end of the year, believes the solution is to drop 360 degrees entirely. Co-founder and CEO Han Jin calls its LucidCam camera the GoPro of virtual reality because it’s built to be inexpensive, uncomplicated and easy to take anywhere.

LucidCam looks a bit like a flattened, elongated hockey puck. It sports twin cameras that allow it to shoot 3D video and stills. When I popped on an Oculus headset to watch a video shot on a very early prototype, I was greeted by a woman and a baby. The baby played with a xylophone before noticing “my” presence and crawling toward me with a smile.

It was an intimate moment that actually belonged to Jin’s co-founder Adam Rowell. The film wasn’t shot in hyper-realistic HD like those made by some of Lucid’s founders, but the slightly cloudy effect made it feel like a vintage home movie. It actually contributed to the emotional pull of the scene and didn’t detract from the feeling of presence. (Of course, Jin and his team are still working toward offering HD video.)

Lucid CEO Han Jin with a LucidCam design prototype.
Lucid CEO Han Jin with a LucidCam design prototype.

Jin, who was previously working at a Y Combinator-backed startup, said he was inspired to work with Rowell on Lucid because of his own family. He was born in China, but grew up in Germany and eventually moved to California to attend school at University of California, Berkeley. He described sending videos shot with LucidCam to his grandmother, who he has not seen in several years. He previously found it difficult to re-create a scene for someone so far away.

“You are re-experiencing something through the eyes of someone else,” Jin said. “It’s like time traveling.”

That idea of recapturing someone’s sight is built right into the design of LucidCam. Most cameras made for virtual reality capture a full 360 degrees, allowing you to look up, forward and backward when you view the output in a VR headset. But LucidCam only captures 180 degrees. That means that you can sit looking forward and turn your head slightly left or right before you glimpse the black edge of the field of view.

“No one does this,” Jin said, turning his entire body to look over the back of his chair.

It’s somewhat true. Not every virtual reality experience actually needs 360 degrees. People in the industry take it as a given because it’s one of the huge firsts — and strengths — of virtual reality. But it’s natural for viewers to want to take a seat and more passively turn their head every once in a while. The 3D video, and sense of presence, still makes for an impressive experience.

LucidCam’s build also means it’s natural for anyone to shoot with it. You don’t have to adapt to mounting the camera on your head, or setting a timer and running away, to get the right shot. Instead, you just point it forward like you would with any current camera.

“My vision for this is to have any person have one at home,” Jin said.