In Praise of Imperfection: One Smartphone Camera’s Unpredictably Awesome Results

As the year draws to a close, it’s natural to want to look back at all the impeccably designed, standout gear we tested and used. But amid these near-perfect marriages of hardware and software, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the most enjoyable features come not from refinement, but flat-out, unambiguous failure.

Earlier this year, I reviewed the LG G2. Technically, it’s not a horrible phone. But it is a frustrating one that does its best to overshadow its excellent display, battery life, and processing power with questionable design decisions and annoying software. When using the phone, your experience swings in one of two directions: Either “wow, this device works great” or “man, this feature is terrible.”

Those two extremes intersect in the G2′s camera. The camera itself works fine. But in the mode selections, there’s something called “VR Panorama.” When you use it, the results are glitchy, and they’re glorious. They’re glorious because they’re glitchy.

This is what VR panorama mode thinks Times Square looks like.

The UI for VR Panorama mode is straight out of Tron (the 1982 version): A 3-D wireframe grid extends into the distance, disappearing into a low-slung layer of cyberfog. This is the fog where flat design and skeuomorphism have gone to die — if only for a spell in VR land. Amid the digital haze is a small window unto non-virtual reality, letting you peer through the camera lens and line up the first shot of the rest of your life. Frame it wisely, my friend. It will be your first stop on a very special journey.

You capture the first shot in the sequence, and VR Panorama begins to work its sorcery. You move the camera left, and it shows you the outline of a box where you should line up your next shot. You move it right, and another box appears. There are boxes above you, behind you, beneath you. VR Panorama will keep on offering you the boxes until you’ve captured a picture-globe of your surroundings. It’ll take a minute, maybe more. It’ll also take the phone a few seconds to process the results.

And here’s what those results will look like: Walls melting into furniture, the lower halves of torsos disappearing into thin air, ordinary buildings morphed into deconstructivist structures, and scenes in your image repeating several times. It can look horrific or comical or just plain weird. It never looks normal.

This is what VR Panorama mode thinks Bryant Park looks like.

This is all presumably by accident, but it creates a singular and unrepeatable work of art every time you use the mode. VR Panorama is “hackable” too, in the sense that you can have people move around in the frame or move yourself around to ramp up the surreal effects. But you’ll still never get the same results twice.

This is what VR Panorama mode thinks the WIRED NYC offices look like.

Of course VR Panorama isn’t a unique feature; WIRED editor Bryan Gardiner discovered similarly glitchy-but-good results in a random Google+ “Action Shot,” which was stitched together from a series of photos.

This is how Google+ thinks Bryan Gardiner plays ping pong.

There are also apps and built-in modes that do similar things for other phones. Photosynth is the grandaddy of them all, but there’s also the Photo Sphere mode in Android 4.2 to 4.4, and apps such as Bubbli for the iPhone. I’m not sure any of those glitch out as hard and as consistently as VR Panorama does, and it’s that surefire yet unpredictable bugginess that makes it all the more compelling.