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360 degree video pushes VR into the mainstream

September 29, 2016 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller
National Geographic offers a 360 degree video tour of Vietnam's Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. On a PC, users can look around by dragging using a mouse or touchscreen. On a tablet,  users can look around by moving the device itself.

Go to any conference these days, and you are bound to see some virtual reality (VR) on display. In reality (if you’ll pardon the expression), despite its massive cool factor, VR is still very much in its infancy. However, one type of VR called 360 degree video is entering the mainstream, and introducing the promise of virtual reality to the masses.

Woman using a Samsung VR headset. Photo by By Nan Palmero.

Today, most VR requires an external headset from the likes of Oculus (owned by Facebook), Samsung or HTC—and the recent introduction of Sony Morpheus has the potential for impact, given the broad PlayStation user base. Google has also created an extremely low-cost headset called Google Cardboard, but we haven’t seen VR gain wide market appeal just yet. It’s still very early days, after all.

Unlike its more immersive cousin, VR, 360 degree video gives the viewer the ability to see outside the frame by dragging the picture to get a 3D-ish view of the scene. While virtual reality allows users to interact with the world around them, 360 degree video is limited to a view that circles the perspective of one camera. And though it limits the user to the role of spectator, rather than participant, it has the advantage of being much more accessible, mostly because it doesn’t require that external hardware, which makes it consumable by anyone.

And it’s catching on in a big way with the likes of Disney, Associated PressNational Geographic and the Financial Times of London creating videos. We’ve also seen 360 degree video of office tours, Jimmy Kimmel’s Emmy monologue, and even a tour of my TechCrunch colleague, Lucas Matney‘s apartment (which is pretty nice).

The whys and wherefores
So you want to be a 360 degree video star? First you’ll need a camera. These special devices range widely in price from around $200 all the way up to $60,000, and many price points and feature-sets in between. As CNET points out, you get what you pay for, and there are devices for hobbyists and professionals, as with any camera.

At $60,000, the Nokio Ozo 360 degree video camera is at the top end of the price range.
At $60,000, the Nokio Ozo 360 degree video camera is at the top end of the price range.

Once you get the camera, it’s a matter of creating the video, and there are two types it turns out, according to Gregory Potter, an analyst who covers virtual reality for SNL Kagan. The first, monoscopic, creates that kind of flat 3D effect you see in videos where you drag your mouse (or finger) to see a 3D view of the scene. The second, stereoscopic, creates a multidimensional experience that requires a VR headset to take advantage of.

Tom Vance, head of content at Jaunt, a startup that creates virtual reality content, says 360 degree video takes many forms. According to Vance, 360 degree video can be consumed in a variety of ways: everything from a 360-web experience where the viewer is clicking and dragging with their mouse, to what we he calls a “magic window” experience where viewers watch the experience on their phones without a headset and rotate the phone around to experience the 360-degree panorama. Finally, for the most robust experience, users can view the content with a VR headset—which calls for a point of distinction, he points out, as headsets include everything from the low-end experience (like with a Google cardboard) to higher end experiences that Samsung Gear VR, Oculus and HTC Vive provide.

Early days indeed
Vance believes that 360 degree video is, in its way, a stepping stone to true VR, rather than an end unto itself. He says that true 3D immersive experiences will require a VR headset to achieve. From a content and technology perspective, 360 degree video offers an introductory opportunity to learn about telling stories in the emerging medium of immersive video experiences.

But the story is just part of it. Creating the video itself also requires a new set of production skills. “VR production is hard and we are still experimenting and in a learning phase at the highest level and across the board. That is exciting and challenging,” he said. While Vance may be speaking from personal experience at Jaunt, his point could easily refer to the industry at large as well.

While 360 degree video could be a bridge to whatever comes next—as our phones and various devices catch up with the technology—it’s here now and it provides an opportunity to give consumers a peek at stuff that’s outside of the frame. That’s already pretty exciting. But as we get more comfortable wearing VR headsets and their usage becomes widespread, the quality of the content should increase dramatically and open up all kinds of possibilities for content creators, whether entertainment media, marketers or news organizations.

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