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Snap explored selling a 360 camera

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What comes after Spectacles for the “camera company”? Snap has explored 360 cameras as a future product, according to three sources familiar with the matter. Snap brought in a camera developer with expertise in 360 cameras and stereoscopic cameras to pitch the company potential hardware options.

Snap’s investigation into 360 cameras is still in early phases, and it’s not certain it will release a product in the space, sources confirm. Snap declined to comment for this story.

Selling a Snap-branded 360 camera could inject a new content format into Snapchat similar to how Spectacles delivered first-person, circular video, plus offer a new direct revenue stream.

Snap has previously met with startups with the implication that it might acquire them, when in reality its goal has been to gather information about new markets and technologies where it could compete, according to one source familiar with Snap’s M&A procedures.

In some cases, it has made acquisitions after these meetings. But in other cases, “they talked to a bunch of people and got them to tell them a bunch of stuff. Snap shows a little bit of leg and tries to be flirty to see what they can get,” the source said.

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Samsung’s Gear 360 Camera

For example, late last year TechCrunch learned Snap had met with selfie drone startup Lily, but no deal came of it. Those talks were later reported by Business Insider, and Lily eventually shut down. Yesterday, The New York Times reported that Snap “worked on” a drone, which a TechCrunch source confirmed, but it’s unclear whether it will eventually release a product in this space.

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Artist rendering of Ricoh’s forthcoming R 360 camera

Snap would have heavy competition outside its core competency if it moved into drones. Lily went out of business before managing to figure out how to produce its drone after selling $34 million-worth of pre-orders. GoPro already has its Karma drone, though it had to relaunch it after a recall due to the unmanned aerial vehicles falling out of the sky.

Popular Chinese drone giant DJI is widely believed to make the best flying cameras, and there are plenty of lower-priced options on the market. Snap would likely have to focus on ease of use or some novel camera features to differentiate itself and look “cool” compared to similar gadgets.

Snap might have a better opportunity selling a 360 camera. While there are products like the Ricoh Theta and Samsung Gear 360, none have achieved mainstream success and ubiquity in the U.S. A Snap 360 camera would likely be more portable and simple to operate than a drone, and leverage Snap’s expertise around image capture.

360 cameras typically utilize multiple fish-eye lenses to produce photos and videos that viewers can look around within by swiping or moving their screen. This lets them check out what’s going on in different directions, creating a sense of immersion. To date, most 360 content hasn’t been particularly compelling to watch, as professional videographers are still experimenting with what works with the medium.

While being onstage at a concert or riding in a fighter jet in a long 360 video might feel boring or impersonal, getting to feel like you’re surrounded by people you know for a few seconds could be a lot more fun. If Snap got 360 cameras into the hands of teenagers, they might discover novel use cases.

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Viewers can look around inside 360 videos and photos, like this one shot on a Ricoh Theta

Other hardware options our sources say Snap has preliminarily discussed include a mounted action camera similar to a GoPro, and a stereoscopic camera that could take 3D images. Snap may also pursue releasing a second version of its Spectacles camera sunglasses, though the first version hasn’t contributed meaningful revenue to the company yet.

As Snap heads into its IPO this week, investors will be looking for future ways it could earn money. User growth has plummeted since the launch of competitor Instagram Stories, which TechCrunch first reported was stealing Snapchat usage. Snap might be able to offset this problem through sales of different cameras and the introduction of fresh content types they shoot.

The question driving Snap’s hardware ambitions is: What can’t your phone camera do? It can’t take first-person, hands-free video, so Snap built Spectacles. It can’t fly. And it can’t capture what’s around you in all directions at once. People often stick their camera phones in the air and do a slow pan to show off where they are. A 360 camera could do a much better job of making friends feel like they’re there with you.

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