Why 360? Designing for Wonder and 360° of Immersive Possibility

I am the first to admit: 360° video and virtual reality have a long way to go. I also believe that these rapidly evolving technologies can enable profound experiences and will soon support more meaningful and impactful storytelling.

You see, my teamate Saba and I have been campaigning to preserve endangered landscapes in 360° video before they are destroyed by the many forces changing our planet. What started as an immersive data experiment with NASA’s satellite photography has evolved into a much larger initiative with very tactical challenges: securing access to glaciers, testing equipment, cutting costs, and cutting more costs. Our focus has been dominated by The What with little room for The Why.

Then a reporter from Fast Company asked me: Why 360° video? What can 360° videos do that regular videos can’t? I restated the obvious value of capturing an environment’s complete surroundings. I talked about the latest and greatest camera gear. My answer was long and rambling — perhaps unconvincing.

Good question, I thought. Bad answer, I knew.

That night I got a call from a friend interested in the Catalog.Earth project. She had recently visited family in Ohio, bringing along a Google Cardboard VR headset. Her boyfriend’s father has never left the midwest, and when he donned the headset to view a summit of Mount Everest he fell silent — tears soaking into the paper box. Tears were running down their faces too, she told me, at witnessing his raw and emotional response to this totally unfamiliar place.

It struck me: this is why 360° video. It can transport us. It gives us the ability to share powerful and immersive experiences we may never have the opportunity to live. It can ignite our imaginations and leave us in awe. It can make us cry in a room full of people watching as we flail around with a phone wrapped in cardboard strapped to our face.

Louis Cheskin suggested that people understand their experiences through 15 Core Meanings, such as Accomplishment, Security, and Validation. My favorite: Wonder. According to these Core Meanings, Wonder is defined as “awe in the presence of a creation beyond one’s understanding.”

To me, 360° videos have the potential to inspire awe through the sensation of rich experiences that feel real, though we know they are not. If done well, they become magical creations and even expand our understanding of what is possible. Yeah, we have a long way to go, but I’m an optimist and excited for what’s to come and all that we can learn along the way.