Anybody of a certain age remembers the ViewMaster, a favorite childhood toy that read circular reels through a bright red stereoscopic viewfinder, rendering images from those reels in vivid, 3D detail. If nothing else, the color of Kandao’s new QooCam EGO viewfinder gives away that someone at that company has fond memories of the ViewMaster.
And in many ways, the camera captures that childhood magic of the ViewMaster, but instead of pre-photographed reels that you purchase from the company, you can create your own 3D stereoscopic images from the world around you. These images (and video) can be viewed with the included stereo 3D viewer or on a VR headset, or viewed in a non-3D view on your computer.
The effect is convincing, and the camera is one of the few in its class and price point, but how is it to actually use? Kandao gave me a couple of months with a QooCam EGO to put it through its paces.
Like other Kandao products, the $369 QooCam EGO has a very premium feel in the hand. The camera comes in two parts - the camera itself and the included stereo viewer that lets you shoot or view files in 3D when attached via clips and magnets to the main camera body. The camera body has a soft, rubberized feel and comes in black and white, though the white version of the camera seemed very prone to picking up tons of dirt and even some of the red paint off the viewer. This didn’t affect the operation of the camera, but didn’t help its looks any.
There are few buttons on the camera. Three buttons on the side control playback, and two up top operate power and the shutter. The other side has a removable battery, a USB-C port for charging, and a memory card slot for a micro SD card. Most of the controls are through the touch screen on the back, which is tiny (2.5”), but displays vibrant colors. The front features the two lenses to create the stereoscopic view, and at the bottom, there’s a standard ¼” tripod mount.
Kandao says the camera is “water-resistant” but not waterproof, so it’s probably a bad idea to take the camera on a dive. In practice, I took it on a hike with some nearby waterfalls, and the droplets didn’t hurt the camera, but I didn’t try much more than that.
The camera has a nice weight to it at about a ⅓ of a pound and is about the size of point-and-shoot cameras of yesteryear or a deck of cards if you haven’t seen a point-and-shoot camera in a while.
How Does It Handle?
It’s sized like a point-and-shoot camera, and it handles like one as well. The only file format available for photos is JPG (even though the menu, perplexingly, gives you an option for “format,” the only option available is JPG). There are no manual controls to speak of, and video and photos on the camera are basically an automatic, affair save for exposure compensation.
That’s not a bad thing in the sense that the camera is very easy to use, and the automatic modes generally seemed to get exposure and color right, at least in the couple of months I used the camera. I generally took the camera out in fast-paced journalism situations, and so, automatic was fine for these purposes, at least as far as the actual shooting went.
The camera is a little more than pokey in actual operation though, taking about 20 seconds to start up and 6 seconds to shut down. More often than not, I had to repeatedly press the screen for it to register my command. Kandao addressed the startup issue in a firmware update not by fixing the speed, but by adding a lock function to the “Q” button at the back of the camera that shuts down the screen to save battery. The camera is "asleep" rather than powered off, so it comes to life a bit faster with this method. It’s better than nothing, but it’s definitely a band-aid. When I did my test shots for this camera, that ability was not in place, and so, I had to shut down the camera between shots to conserve battery, which led to a lot of missed moments. With the screen on, the battery drains at an alarming rate.
For all of the point-and-shoot ethos of the exposure and color controls on the camera, there’s one glaring omission that makes the camera quite a bit more difficult to work with, and that’s a lack of autofocus. There is none whatsoever.
All focusing had to be done through a little on-screen slider that tells you what the focus distance is, and you have to use your best guess. There aren’t any focus aids such as peaking or split prisms either, and in practice, this resulted in many, many missed shots due to focus issues. The initial firmware only included measurements in metric units, but a July 1 firmware update added the English system of measurement as well, so inches and feet are included now, which helps only slightly with the guesswork. Kandao reps said they are working on adding focus via a firmware update, but it’s inexcusable to release a camera in 2022 without the feature, and at press time, months after the camera’s June release, the feature still hasn’t materialized.
The lack of autofocus was less of a problem in video than it was in photo, which was explained to me by a Kandao rep as being a function of the higher resolution for photo that makes focus errors a bit more pronounced. In the cases of the multiple New York City protests I covered using this camera, almost all photos that came back were misfocused. Yes, that’s pilot error, but the camera doesn’t do much — anything, really — to help the pilot.
Therein lies the problem. Focus comes down to guesswork, and the camera doesn’t even have the needed focus aids in the absence of functional autofocus. It’s such a critical feature to have that it ruins the shooting experience for an otherwise interesting and fun camera.
That fun part is what made me come back to the camera even though the shooting experience without autofocus is maddening. When I was able to hit focus, the experience was magical. Putting on the viewfinder and pushing the play button transported me into a high-res (24 MP) image that really felt like I was looking at something that I could reach out and grab. Video seemed that way too, making me feel like I was right on the scene of whatever I was shooting. The fact that it felt like I was looking at a modern-day ViewMaster hit all the nostalgia buttons. I made it a point to carry the viewfinder with me in the included carrying case with the camera so I could preview these images on the spot to make sure I got it just right.
The video quality is listed at up to 3,840 x 1,080 at 60 fps 3D video and 1,920 x 1,080 at 60 fps single lens video. In practice, the video looked crystal clear with good color and surprisingly good audio. I really felt like I was in the scene.
To make sure this wasn’t just me, I gave the viewer to my young children and asked them to take a look, as well as other non-photo folks of my vintage, and both groups were impressed by the 3D look of the images and video.
As a photojournalist, I can see the images and video from this camera being a powerful storytelling tool that places readers right into the heart of the action in a way that they couldn’t be present before. Also, as a photojournalist, I can see editors scratching their heads as I try to explain why we’d need to get one of these at the newspaper.
One thing that throws a bit of cold water on the idea to use the camera for journalism, however, is the speed of the camera’s operation. The camera took a full 20 seconds to startup and get ready to shoot and 6 seconds to shut down. Menu taps took a second or two to register, and shot-to-shot time also was a couple of seconds. While slow shooting speeds are one thing, 20 seconds to start up means the moment I was trying to capture was often over before the camera had a chance to capture it. Kandao says that an upcoming firmware update will fix this issue, but it was not available at press time.
What Do You Do With It?
While a QooCam owner looking through the viewfinder will appreciate the 3D images, sharing such photos and videos are exceedingly difficult. While you can use the app to create standard 2D footage that’s more accessible to average viewers (in addition to various stereoscopic 3D modes that are stabilized in the app), that defeats the purpose of buying this camera. For those who don’t have this camera, there’s no easy way to share images and video or view them in the intended stereoscopic way. It’s true of all cameras in this style, but this is intended to be a consumer-friendly product, and it’s in desperate need of a consumer-friendly way to share it.
For video, taking a file straight out of the camera and putting it into YouTube results in this:
That side-by-side video won't really work for anyone, and there's no way to inject the proper metadata for VR headsets without Kandao's VR metadata injector. There isn't a manual included, and the online manual makes no mention of how any of this works. Even with this software, I had to (twice) type in my admin password on my Mac to allow it to run what it thought was malware, first for the executable file that Kandao provided, and then for the FFMPEG software it was piggybacking off of. I did this in the name of science for this article, but is the consumer this camera is aimed at going to bother? In any case, here's the final output with metadata injected:
Honestly, it looked great in my Oculus Go headset. The 3D effect of this camera is real, and it's wonderful. I have some footage I captured of my kids that I'll definitely be saving for posterity. But it shouldn't take this much work.
For photos, Kandao reps did point to some sketchy software that isn’t in fully in English to make photos for Facebook, but it’s a complicated process that the intended audience shouldn’t have to go through just to share a photo. Most won’t.
In that way, what you’re left with is posting the stereoscopic images side by side in the hopes that the end user will figure out what to do with it, like this:
Why do I only have one photo here? Because after months of using it, it was almost impossible to focus a photo, frame it correctly, and capture just the right moment. There's no cropping in this sort of photo to fix the composition later. The lack of autofocus hosed almost all of my still photo shooting efforts with this camera.
In two specific ways, this product feels like it's ahead of its time. The first is that there are still no universal standards to distribute this kind of immersive imagery and video, and so a vast majority of audiences won’t perceive the true benefit of the images and video from this camera.
The second way is a bit more of a knock on how Kandao’s handled the launch of the camera. The hardware seems willing, but the firmware and app support aren’t there yet. When I had the camera in hand for its early June release date, the camera was slow, with a somewhat confusing interface, no app support and, crucially, no autofocus. More than a month later, the interface is still a bit confusing, with no labels on many of the icons or explanations for menu items, app support on the QooCam app offers the basics but not much more, and there’s still no autofocus.
That last one’s the dealbreaker here. The image quality for such a small camera in both video and photos is superb and gives you a true feeling of depth. That is, when you can hit focus.
I hate to sound like a broken record here, but in almost every 360/VR camera I review from every company, the knock on firmware and app support is a common refrain. Cameras are released before software is fully ready, and as a reviewer, I feel like I’m reviewing products that could be great, but that are held back by software.
And that’s completely the case with the Kandao QooCam EGO here. When I look through the viewer, I am impressed by the images that the camera can capture. But a wait time of just over 20 seconds to start up a camera that can’t even autofocus means that I’m missing moments because I’m waiting for the camera, or I’m missing moments because the camera has no focusing aids or autofocus to help me nail the shot. This camera, two months after its release, still feels like a beta product.
If Kandao can iron out the speed issues and add autofocus, I certainly think content creators would appreciate the chance to capture photos in this new way, but until that happens, it’s impossible to recommend.
What I Liked
- Great still and video image quality out of a small package
- 3D effect is real, and it works
- Included viewer works just like the ViewMasters of old
- Quality construction
What I Didn't Like
- Incredibly slow startup and general operation
- No autofocus or focus aids of any kind
- Confusing interface
- Feels like the camera is unfinished.
To purchase the Kandao QooCam EGO, click on this link.