Review: Rylo Camera

The next big thing in cameras can't be measured in megapixels or lens elements. From now on, the best camera you can buy will be the one with the best algorithms. Whether you're playing with Portrait Mode on the iPhone, stitching together huge 3D images from the Light L16, or goofing off in augmented reality, all the hard work in your pictures now happens after you hit the shutter.

For a couple of ex-Instagram employees, this presents an opportunity. They founded Rylo, the company, to build Rylo, the camera, to help everyone shoot better video. The $500 gadget is technically a 360-degree camera, but you likely won't be using it to capture full spheres all the time. Instead, Rylo's using its lenses to capture as much data as possible so it can take your caddywhompus video and make it arrow-straight, remove all the shake from your unsteady hands, and even help you direct your mini-movie long after you've captured it. Their hope is that just as Instagram filters made all your photos look a little better, and thus made you more likely to show them to the world, they might be able to do the same thing for video.

I've been shooting with a Rylo for the last week. I've chased my dog around, mounted the camera to a bicycle, and stuck it out the window of a car, pointed at nothing in particular. I haven't always been blown away by the resulting video, or what Rylo can do with it. But there's more than enough here to make it clear that software is the future of video, and video is the future of my Instagram feed.

Look Away

The Rylo camera itself looks roughly like every other 360-degree camera out there, because there aren't many ways to diff on a small gadget with fat lenses pointing in both directions. It's about the size of a GoPro, only oval-shaped and not quite as rugged. Even with the weatherproof case it can only be submerged 10 feet, and outside of the case you'll need to be careful with it.

Unless you're the clumsy or dangerous type, the Rylo's plenty solid and super simple to figure out: There's a small screen on the back that shows battery stats and how much space you have left; a button on the back for switching from video to stills and another up top that acts as both power and shutter; and a door on the bottom for the removable battery. The only other thing I'd want is a tripod mount, but there's at least the small mounting accessory that comes in the box.

The Rylo's two lenses each capture a 208-degree field of view, at a relatively bright f/2.8 aperture. They're about the optical equivalent of a fish-eye lens you'd put on a DSLR, except Rylo's software helps do away with the stretchy, distorted effects you get from those lenses. Two times 208 is a lot more than 365, which helps Rylo do things like ensure sharp quality even at the corners of your picture, and digitally remove the camera itself from your footage.

I've never taken such usable, attractive video while simply walking around, or chasing my dog through the park.

Shooting with the Rylo feels weird at first. There's no viewfinder, and you can't even hook up your phone and monitor it that way. The two lenses point in opposite directions, and they're both so wide it's hard to figure out if you're pointing it in the right direction. For anyone schooled in golden ratios and the rule of thirds, the experience is mind-bending. The first few times I took it out, I worried constantly that I wasn't "getting the shot." But that's the thing: There is no right direction. Rylo's getting every shot, which means it's definitely getting the one you want.

While testing the Rylo, I found myself intentionally trying to screw up my videos. I'd have a coffee in one hand, camera in the other, and just sort of thrust the Rylo in the rough direction of my subject. I'd walk extra heavy just to test the stabilization. I'd move it really fast, then really slow, then really fast again. All these things would render most video either useless or nausea-inducing, but Rylo's stood up to every challenge.

The Rylo's battery lasts for about an hour of continuous shooting, which is also about how long it'll take to fill the 16-gig memory card that comes included. (You can swap in other cards, or another battery, and just keep going.) Once you're done shooting, you get out the short cable that comes with the camera, plug one end into the Rylo and the other into your phone, and fire up the Rylo app. That's where the fun really starts.

Fix It in Post

What comes off your camera, whether you shoot a still or a video, is a sphere of content. It's a fully stitched 360 degrees, which means you'll see yourself (turns out I make insane faces while shooting video) in addition to whatever else you captured. Once you've imported your stuff, which only takes a few seconds per video, you can pan around and endlessly re-frame your shot.

Even before you see your videos, Rylo's already made them better by automatically straightening your horizon lines and stabilizing the footage. Usually, this happens so seamlessly you don't even notice, but there are a few times where you can actually see your video warping a bit as it tries to stay level. You can turn off those effects if you like, but it works really well and prevents unnecessary wobbling. This is remarkable tech in itself: I've never taken such usable, attractive video while simply walking around, or chasing my dog through the park.

The Rylo app itself is impressively simple, which you'd expect from two ex-Instagram developers. You can trim your clip, crop the frame, or change the speed so it looks more like a timelapse. You even get to choose the orientation of the video: If you watch and save it vertically, it cuts a vertical slice from the frame, but can just as easily crop horizontally. You can also use a picture-in-picture feature to show two parts of the sphere simultaneously. All these, too, work really well. Changing edits and selecting crops takes no time at all, and you can share to Instagram or Facebook straight from the app. When you're done with your shot, you can either save a cropped version—basically whatever you see on your phone screen—or the whole sphere.

As a GoPro competitor, Rylo's impressive. But the more advanced stuff Rylo promises doesn't always work so well. One of the company's coolest ideas was a "Follow This" feature, in which you pick a subject and the camera then follows it all over the frame. Sometimes it worked great: One time, it found a plane flying overhead and tracked it seamlessly through the entire frame. Other times, it followed my subject for a second, then either lost it entirely or began following something else for no reason. It followed my dog, then a yellow fire hydrant, then the leash in my hand. Not quite what I was going for. Even when it did work, the motion looked jumpy and awkward, not at all like a smoothly panning camera.

Another of Rylo's features allows you to move the camera through a scene over time. You pick a spot, then another a few seconds later, and the software then pans smoothly from one to another. When it works, it's like you're operating a camera on a crane, or you're an expert drone pilot. More often, it looks like you're a first-time iMovie user, jump-cutting with reckless abandon.

Most of what Rylo's trying to do can be accomplished and improved over time with software. This camera will likely be much better in a year than it is now. Right now, the only thing I find really frustrating is the camera's occasional lapses in video quality. Mostly it's excellent, capturing crisp audio, beautiful panoramic stills, and high-definition video with excellent color reproduction and fidelity. But every now and then, I'll shoot one video that's bright and clear, then another a few seconds later, in the same spot, that comes out almost unusably blurry.

The app also has a nasty habit of stitching the Rylo's sphere together in such a way that it looks like my hands were mangled in a horrible accident. And it can be hard to zoom after the fact, because one 4K frame only gives you so much to work with. This is a camera you're supposed to trust—in fact, you have no choice but to trust it, because there are no manual controls, no half-press to focus, no viewfinder, no nothing. You can edit later in case you framed it wrong, but you can't fix blurry footage.

Rylo's problems feel fairly standard for a brand-new product from a brand-new company. It's an early-adopter plaything, certainly not ready to be trusted as the only source for your most precious memories. I'm reluctant to recommend it over a device like the GoPro Hero6, which is less ambitious but more reliable. In a year or so, though, I wouldn't be surprised to see Rylo in a class by itself. Someday soon, when the algorithms improve, a camera like this is going to make everything you shoot look incredible. Start prepping your Best Director speech.

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