360° video is a fairly recent technology in which omnidirectional cameras are used to grab a spherical video capture of a space, rather than the rectangular capture in traditional videography. The perspectives of the omnidirectional cameras are then stitched together to generate an immersive experience for viewers to experience, placing the viewer within the context of a scene or event rather than presenting them as an outside observer, and giving the viewer the ability to control the orientation of the scene and viewing direction.
While the shooting of 360° video still requires some specialized equipment, technological advancement has made playback for these types of videos commonplace and seamless on three main platforms:
Mobile - the most common platform for 360° video viewing, mobile requires nothing more than a smartphone to serve as a “window” for the 360° video sphere, allowing a user to physically move their phone to view other parts of the captured video.
Desktop - the second most popular platform for 360° viewing today, desktop viewers can view a 360° video in much the same way as mobile, but instead of physically moving the phone and allowing an accelerometer to move them through the space, the viewer is required to use a mouse or touch input to pan about a video.
Headsets - while still a nascent technology, headset usage is becoming more popular. These range from budget technologies like Google Cardboard and the Google Daydream (which piggyback off playback on a mobile device) to premium dedicated headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which are dedicated hardware specifically for VR experiences.
Understanding the lingo
Distinguishing between VR, AR and 360° Video
While many media outlets use the terms virtual reality (VR) and 360° video interchangeably, there is in fact a distinction between the two. Virtual reality, strictly defined, requires the generation of a fully digital environment, generally has greater opportunities for interactivity in the experience, and cedes control over the story experience to the viewer. 360° video, however, is a live action capture of a real world event or setting, without the need for a pre-rendered digital environment.
The lines between 360° video and VR blend with augmented reality (AR), which involves the overlay of computer-generated imagery over a live capture of the space around us. Popular examples of augmented reality include Niantic’s “Pokemon Go!” video game, as well as military applications that overlay a heads-up display on a live feed of a combat zone for a pilot, for example. While this kind of live overlay is outside the scope of this guide, storytelling techniques for AR and 360° video share similarities, particularly in terms of text overlays and storytelling guideposts for viewers and content consumers.
History - how new is this, really?
Early techniques to create immersive experiences in film usually involved manually rigging multiple traditional cameras together, and then projecting the videos from the cameras independently on multiple screens surrounding the audience in a specially designed theater space. One such example is Walt Disney’s Circle-Vision 360, which is still a popular attraction at Disney World today.
Panoramic photography has been around since the early days of photography. It saw a major upswing in popularity in the late 1990s as digital cameras and improved editing software made the process of creating and stitching images yet easier. Around the same time, early omnidirectional cameras were created, taking advantage of the same technological advancements to more easily create truly immersive environments in film. In the early 2000s, pioneers in the field began creating some rudimentary videos, with a slow increase in popularity throughout the decade, including some news outlets experimenting with the technology to give viewers and consumers a more immersive look at certain areas (for example, to show the devastation left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake in 2008).
360° video has seen a marked increase in popularity since about 2015. Facebook launched the ability to view 360° video from in late 2015, and now has enabled playback across all platforms, including live 360° video streaming; YouTube also introduced 360° video playback in 2015 and uploads in 2016, and the two combined to make the format available to a much wider audience than ever before. In 2016, many news outlets (including the New York Times, the Guardian, NBC News, BBC, and others) began making 360° video content a regular part of their coverage for select events.
Why should I be interested in 360° now?
While 360° video has had a foothold among savvy consumers of technology, its popularity today is expanding rapidly, with an adoption curve similar to that of mobile phones. This is primarily driven by a few trends:
Production technology is getting cheaper and more capable: Early 360° video production required extremely expensive cameras, editing tools, and rendering software, meaning that costs for producing a 360° video could easily reach thousands of dollars in upfront cost. Now, entry-level prosumer products reach merely hundreds of dollars, and off-the-shelf editing and uploading solutions make costs of distribution relatively negligible, opening the door for many more consumers to produce and create relevant videos. While these technologies are still developing, they are reaching a level of maturity that is stable enough for content producers to be willing to invest in a 360° development marketplace.
Ease of viewing: As noted above, many media outlets, including the world’s two most popular video sites (YouTube and Facebook) have made consuming 360° video commonplace and streamlined across devices. Viewing videos no longer requires the purchase of specialized technologies like costly headsets. That being said, headset adoption is also increasing, with some reports noting that VR headset penetration could reach up to 30% of adults by 2020.
Presence: traditional and social media outlets are developing best practices for creating 360° video content, yet the guidelines for this new media form are still being refined and developed. Beyond the technological guide, we hope to provide clarity on considerations for content creation as well to help individuals and organizations focus their efforts on the most impactful applications of 360° video.