The whole appeal of virtual reality is that it absorbs you. When it’s done poorly, the simulacrum shows itself, and you get The Truman Show sort of feeling, the feeling that something’s just not right here. But when it’s done well, it really does take you somewhere else.

Google’s been constantly capturing this kind of imagery with its wild camera-enabled cars, and funneling it into Street View. But ever since Google released its Photosphere app, there’s been a surprisingly large group of people creating their own 360-degree photos and sharing them via Google Maps and Street View. They’re not just sharing photos of the view from the cliff, they’re helping you feel what it’s like to be standing on the edge. Google’s noticed the phenomenon, and today is launching a dedicated Street View app for iOS and Android that will give armchair travelers a chance to see what it looks like to be standing just about anywhere.

The app is mostly a map. As you move around, it automatically filters results, showing you photospheres from near where you are. Think of it this way: Street View is the view two steps closer than Google Earth will ever let you go, and now it’s everywhere. It’s a mix of Google’s content, and shots from regular users.
Google's Street View app works on Android and iOS.Google’s Street View app works on Android and iOS. Google
Along with it, Google’s partnering with camera-maker Ricoh to create a new 360-degree camera that turns shooting photospheres from a complicated, many-step process into a simple click of the shutter button. It’s called the Theta S—it’s the latest in a series, and it looks pretty impressive.

Jim Malcolm, president of Ricoh Imaging America, showed me the camera via Google Hangout. It’s a candy bar of a device available in five colors, and the long, thin rectangle has camera lenses bulging out of either side. It has a 24-megapixel sensor, but since it’s shooting and stitching your photos together you’re getting something more like a 14-megapixel image. You can control the camera and save photos with your smartphone, or store them on the device’s 8GB of local storage.

That storage is going to go fast, though, because this thing is capturing a crap-ton (that’s a technical term) of data. It’s shooting 360 degrees in every direction, every time you hit the camera button. “Our approach to the category,” Malcolm says, “is that having a blind spot always leaves something out.” The Theta S’s mirrors even let it shoot straight downward—you get a tiny blemish from the bottom edge of the camera as it points downward. It’s honestly, truly incredible to point the camera forward and take a picture with your shoes in view.

If you shoot video, you’ll capture about 2 GB of footage every 15 minutes. Malcolm says you’ll see a 1080p video at all times, though the entirety of the shot is actually much larger. It’ll work with YouTube’s player, for instance, and you’ll be able to navigate around the video with your fingers or mouse. A couple of vloggers have gotten their hands on Thetas before, and they give a wild sense of someone’s real life when you can pan around and see what’s behind them as they walk around.

Shooting 360-degree videos often consists of huge, GoPro-heavy rigs. The Theta won’t look nearly as good, but it’s a whole lot easier to use and carry. Plus, Ricoh’s not trying to upend the VR film industry anyway. Malcolm says Ricoh thinks of this kind of imagery not as an art form, but as “social communication.” The first stat he quotes is how many selfies people take—this, he hopes, is a cool sort of evolution of that. It’s an entirely new, different and more immersive kind of way to tell people where you are and what you’re doing.

Google’s had an open API for spherical cameras since this Spring, and there are likely to be many other cameras like the Theta S before long. And then, who knows? Maybe we’ll all be able to see what the world looks like from literally any spot on the globe.

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Google’s Street View App Pairs With This 360-Degree Camera