Ricoh's Theta shoots 360-degree pics easily, but fails to thrill

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The Theta, at left, has an app that can be used on the iPhone to see the 360-degree images taken with the Ricoh camera.

Ricoh has created an interesting camera called the Theta that lets you capture 360-degree pictures (nearly spherical, in fact) with a single press of a button. It definitely works — but for $400, it needs to do more than just work.

The Theta packs two huge fisheye lenses pointing in opposite directions that, together, cover pretty much the entire visible area around you. Operation is as simple as it gets: press the button, and it takes a shot — no focus, no aperture or ISO setting, nothing. Just hold upright and shoot.

The resulting picture is stored on the Theta, and can be unloaded by plugging the device into your PC, at which point it lets you browse or copy the pictures like any normal camera, or by using the Theta iPhone app.

On the PC, the pictures appear as distorted, ultra-wide panoramas — not exactly fun to peruse. But in the slickly designed app (perhaps too slickly; controls aren't always obvious), they turn into little spheres you can look around as if from the perspective of the camera. Zooming out in these is fun, making your pictures into strange little planets.

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The panoramic images can be navigated at whatever level of distortion you like - these are the two extremes (shot at different locations, one inside and one outside).

It's a remarkably easy process (once you get the wireless set up and get over the slow speed of transferring photos), but inexplicably, the app is only available on iPhone — not iPad, with which these pictures would likely be more fun to navigate, and not on Android (though that is on its way). You can also upload an image to a Web app and view it in your browser.

But it's a still a hard device to recommend. For one thing, the pictures are of middling quality. The heavy lens distortion and image artifacts where the picture has been stitched together are very apparent and often distracting.

The exposure has to be the same for both lenses, too, so if the ground is exposed right, the sky will likely be blown out, or if the picture is indoors, the windows will be too bright.

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If you're going to hand-hold the device, you'll be seeing a lot of hand in your pictures.

You'll also need to find a flat place to put it, since if you're holding it, every picture will have an enormous, distorted arm reaching right up into it. That's only funny the first few times.

And if you're going to have to pull out your phone and launch an app to take a picture anyway, why not use something like Google's Photo Sphere or one of the many panorama apps out there? Sure, you can't do a self-portrait, but the price is right.

Basically, the Theta just doesn't do enough to justify its $400 price. If it were a $100 accessory that stuck onto your phone, it would be easy to recommend to gadget lovers and travelers. But as it is, they'll need to add a few more tricks to make it worth the cash.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is