Facebook is winning the 360 platform war, and it’s not even close…

Trying new technology in storytelling is always a gamble and 360 video is not a unique bet.

We’ve seen the likes of Google Glass’ augmented reality, Lytro’s light field pictures and Soundslides fall into disarray as content producers quickly adopted them and users didn’t.

What is critical to the success of these tools — and their widespread adoption — is how well they integrate into the current media consumption landscape and how familiar a user is with navigating the story experience.

Nokia’s OZO Virtual Reality Camera (Image Credit / Nokia)

We are in the very early stages of 360 video evolution in terms of production and consumption. Right now, 360 video rigs range from $60,000 spheres that look like they should be on display at MoMA to hacked GoPro mounts to the consumer friendly Ricoh Theta that resembles HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

No matter how you decide to capture, distribution is going to decide whether you can reach your audiences and have them experience a story in the most effective way, and Facebook is successfully building an ecosystem that supports immersive storytelling.

Facebook vs YouTube

Right now, Facebook and YouTube are streaming hundreds of thousands of 360 video adding to their collective billions of views daily. More importantly, the same code-injected mp4 file that makes the 360 magic happen works across these networks — this is a big win for content producers from having to rework each project for every network.

But Facebook, in addition to its investment in Oculus, has clearly won the early stages of the UX battle.

Facebook (left) and YouTube (right)

Take a look at both platforms’ players on mobile devices (arguably a better experience than desktop since you can “move” the perspective with your smartphone).

Facebook has developed a clean ecosystem of design cues to guide the audience through 360 content — all working within their app that is being used by 1.4 billion active users monthly across iOS and Android.

Google requires you to download the YouTube app, which might still be popular but doesn’t facilitate the “discovery” process that a Facebook newsfeed allows. On top of that, if you want to use Google Cardboard you can only view a YouTube 360 video on cardboard if you are using an Android device.

Facebook has also added a feature recently that makes refocusing the 360 narrative much easier: the compass.

When making cuts to different scenes and building a narrative arc in 360 video, you are always having to guess which direction the user is looking at any given time. Now with the compass, a lost viewer can just tap the icon and jump back to “forward” no matter what direction the device is facing.

Much of the VR hype has surrounded the high-end native devices such as the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, etc., but Facebook and Google are making a 360 video play on the very devices that billions of people already have in their pockets.

If content producers focus too much on the high end platforms like the Rift, you risk making the same mistakes many have made in the past investing in developing for Google Glass — too high of a bar for adoption by the consumer.

On top of creating a UX that guides the audience through 360 content, Facebook has shared some of their techniques to reduce file sizes of 360 content by 25 percent for mobile viewing.

Training your audience

Facebook is building their 360 experience around the largest potential user base — consumers watching video horizontally on their phones.

The compass (right) while looking up at the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. (Steve Johnson / Weather.com)

This is a brilliant strategy to guide audiences into controlling their video experience and will train consumers to demand control of their video.

I’ve already had friends comment on how they watch standard video and try to move around.

We have already begun to recognize scenes that we want in 360.

Take the Tesla Model 3 launch. No one really needs to see Elon Musk unveil the latest electric car in 360. But when Tesla shares a live video from inside the first public test drives, you immediately want to be able to look around — something that, at the time, was not possible to live stream, but products like VideoStitch’s Orah are changing that.

Facebook has the ecosystem figured out

Facebook Surround 360 uses a 17-camera array and accompanying web-based software to capture images in 360 degrees and render them automatically.

If someone is going to challenge Facebook for 360 video distribution domination, they have a pretty steep hill to climb. Facebook has the largest content distribution network in the world, and they are investing heavily in training their billions of users to depend on Facebook for immersive content — oh, and they are developing hardware, too.

In the meantime, video producers and journalists alike need to focus on creating better content that does more than just bring an audience to a cool place. The content should use these tools and platforms to help an audience understand why they are viewing 360 video by letting them experience what is happening instead of telling them what is happening — a defining opportunity of 360 video over standard video.

Boundless has had the opportunity to work with The Weather Channel to begin 360 video content production and test out the tools, story ideas and ways to bring our audiences closer to the content we gather.

This 360 video takes you deep underwater with divers in Bocas del Toro, Panama. (Steve Johnson / Weather.com)
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