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GoPro enters virtual reality market with 16-camera capture rig

Tech industry and securities experts have long said that GoPro needs to offer more.

The San Mateo, Calif., company may be the market leader in "action" cameras, but, as critics have pointed out, hardware is a competitive market, and a newcomer with a slightly better, slightly cheaper product could easily dethrone the company.

"When it comes down to it, it's a camera. Big deal," said Gregory Sichenzia, a founding member of securities law firm Sichenzia Ross Friedman Ference. "I just can't see the value. So it has to be something more."

On Thursday, GoPro finally upped its game by announcing its plans to enter the virtual reality market.

The company plans to sell a 16-camera, 360-degree array that can capture stereoscopic and "spherical" video. In a deal announced with Google, camera users can view their videos on Google's low-cost Cardboard VR headset, part of its VR ecosystem called Jump. They can also watch the videos on a computer screen for a less-immersive experience.

GoPro's action video cameras — which can be mounted a snowboarder's helmet, for instance, or attached to the end of a surfboard — have become widely popular. Annual sales for GoPro are $1.4 billion as of 2014, growing 41% from the previous year. VR video that can run on Cardboard, which costs $25 or less, could help create a mass market for VR.

The move into VR may not immediately result in an increase in sales of GoPro cameras, but tech expert Jonathan Roubini said it's a smart play by the company in a field that has enormous growth potential.

"Initially you won't see a major increase in sales because the people making VR content or using rigs with 16 different cameras on them … there's not many people doing that right now," he said. "But in the long run, as VR becomes more widely adopted in the consumer market, you'll see growth."

GoPro's first VR camera, however, isn't going to be mounted on anyone's head. It's more akin to several stacked deep-dish pizzas and is intended to be mounted on a tripod.

Still, GoPro's move into virtual reality is a boon for the greater VR market.

"GoPro moving into VR is another great validation point for the whole VR space," said Jens Christensen, co-founder and chief executive of virtual reality content creator and camera maker Jaunt. "I think they've established a strong brand, especially around action sports, and there's a natural follow-on for GoPro to take action sports content into VR."

Jaunt also makes an all-in-one camera with software for stitching together 360-degree video, but it's aimed at professionals.

VR headsets from several makers, including Samsung, Sony and Razer, are expected to go on sale later this year. The most famous is Oculus, an Irvine start-up that Facebook bought last year for $2 billion. Although the Oculus headset will be more versatile with higher-quality imagery than Google Cardboard, it also is expected to cost at least several hundred dollars, although the company has not announced a price.

At first, there may be more VR headsets than content to run on them. When GoPro makes its VR rig smaller and cheaper, it should provide plenty more consumer-made video to feed the market.

Some budding VR videographers haven't been waiting for a commercial product. They've devised their own homegrown rigs for 360-degree video, often using GoPro action cameras.

"What people don't know is we're already the de facto capture device for virtual reality content today," said C.J. Prober, the head of GoPro's software and services division.

Prober said there's no shortage of home-brewed rigs that support multiple GoPro cameras, but they tend toward overheating, short battery life, synchronization issues and cumbersome postproduction video stitching. The GoPro will address these "pain points" by letting users control all 16 camera through one master camera, providing automated synchronization and stitching through built-in software, and solve the battery life problem with an external battery source, he said.

"If you have the rig connected to an external power source, in there, there's no outer limit," Prober said.

The GoPro rig has yet to be priced or given a name, and when it launches in July will be made available only to select Google content creators like high-profile YouTubers. GoPro has not yet announced when the product will be available to the public.

The technology comes integrated with software from Kolor, the virtual reality company that GoPro acquired last month, which stitches and synchronizes the recorded footage. GoPro introduced the camera at Google's developer conference Thursday.

At another conference Wednesday, GoPro also introduced a ball-shaped rig that supports six cameras, and a camera-mounted quadcopter drone geared toward consumers that will launch in 2016.

Prober said the company has plans to bring 360-degree video and photo capture "to a mass audience," perhaps through a smaller and more accessible rig (Hero4 cameras currently retail for $399.99 each), but declined to comment on future products.

The move into virtual reality marks an important step for GoPro in diversifying its business and "being something more," as Sichenzia put it.

"It has to be this lifestyle that millennials or whoever find great value in," he said. "They need to share their experiences with one another and this is a medium in which to do that."

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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