Is 360 video the future?

There is an important question emerging in the media industry — is 360 video a novelty or a permanent media format? I’ll share some data and anecdotes below and would love to hear opinions from others that feel strongly one way or another. Over the past 3 days, I spent a total of 3 hours watching 360 videos using Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung GearVR, and just a smartphone. The spectrum of feelings was broad. I also looked at public data to understand how viewers are engaging with 360 video and what type of content is most enjoyable. Important note — I’m differentiating here between VR and 360 video. 360 video is not fully interactive. While you can gaze around and even “click to teleport,” you don’t have six degrees of freedom, positional tracking, and varying input options, which true VR offers. The following is about 360 video.

First, let’s look at some high-level data. If you’re a 360 platform, producer, or creator with a large enough sample size and differentiated data, I’d love to hear from you.

Viewer Growth (Demand)

  • Over 60% of consumers watching 360 video are doing it on iOS and Android in portrait or landscape, not on native VR platforms and stereoscopic. Thus, almost all data should have an asterisk next to it. 360 video is meant to be watched with an HMD.
  • Facebook is the juggernaut. They are embracing VR/360 in more ways than one. Their Facebook360 effort is quite impressive and their newsfeed ranking algorithm is evidently prioritizing 360 vide0s. Multiple 360 videos garnered over 1M views on FB’s native platform alone. This Nat Geo underwater 360 dive has almost 5M views.
  • YouTube 360 is also a popular destination for viewers with 1.5M subscribers. There are multiple videos with over 1M views and a long-tail of 10k — 50k views videos. This Star Wars video has almost 6M views.
  • Popular, born in VR, video platforms include Littlstar (Rothenberg Ventures’ investment) and Vrideo. There are two videos on Littlstar with over 200k views. One is from a major IP holder (World of Tanks) and one is from a boutique studio (PixelWhipt).
  • Case Study — The President & The People: A National Conversation uploaded by ABC News has 45k views on YouTube and 12k views on Littlstar, and 7k views on Facebook. This is probably a cause of ABC’s marketing priorities.
  • For 360 videos, session duration is about 2x on VR as it is on mobile and 2x on mobile as it is on web.
  • The most popular category on Littlstar is Travel (936 videos). The most popular category on Vrideo is Travel & Events (1,445 videos).

Creator Growth (Supply)

  • In the last 18 months, we’ve seen a 1,000–2,000% growth in new videos uploaded across multiple platforms. We started in the low hundreds. Facebook is an outlier here with a much higher growth trajectory, but I couldn’t find accurate data.
  • Hollywood studios like Lionsgate, Warner Brothers, Sony, Disney, and 20th Century are creating virtual reality studio divisions looking at how they can incorporate virtual reality into the filmmaking process to create immersive experiences through film.
  • Media companies are also piling capital into the infrastructure and content. Led by Comcast, BDMI, Legendary, and the Walt Disney Co..
  • Capital is going towards studios that do 360 video production (though most of the capital is likely going towards engineering) — Jaunt ($100.2M), Within ($12.6M), Felix & Paul ($6.8M), NextVR ($135M).
  • In just the last 12 months, new hardware and software have significantly dropped the cost of creating 360 videos by ~4x. The biggest drivers are post-production software and more accessible prosumer cameras.

Now, my own anecdotal experience and thoughts:

The importance of immersive audio can’t be understated. In order to feel truly “present” in a virtual world or scene, audio is almost 50% of the equation. Binaural audio works best and is still in early stages of development. A good narrator that helps direct your attention and gaze is extremely helpful. Emblematic Group, in their popular pieces Kiva and Trayvon Martin, use real phone audio from 911 calls eliciting one of the most immersive and enthralling experiences I tried.

It takes 5 seconds to lose a viewer forever. You’re donating all your attention and senses to virtual reality when you’re truly immersed. That’s a huge leap of faith from the viewer. I found myself having a very low tolerance for boredom. This exists across mobile and web video as well, short form is king, so not a huge surprise here.

Education works. Some of the best content came from an educational perspective from the likes of NASA, CNN, National Geographic, and Discovery Channel. Education is a powerful application of Virtual Reality. I looked at Jupiter in a way I’ve never seen it before. I saw the guts of a satellite up close. I did more than listen, I felt. We retain what we feel.

Resolution isn’t where it needs to be. There is still a screen door effect that makes presence difficult to achieve. The consumer edition Rift uses a 2160 x 1200 resolution, working at 233 million pixels per second, with a 90Hz refresh rate. The visual fidelity of VR still doesn’t match HDTVs, let alone a 4K displays. While the actual screens inside the headset are high-resolution, having your eyeballs within an inch from their surface allows you to spot individual pixels.

Full utilization of 360 is nice, but don’t abuse it. Having action happen all around you can be very intimidating. Instead of overwhelming the viewer, the best videos, used gaze techniques to direct the viewer’s attention and only used head movement at critical moments, not just for the sake of it. Watching two players header a ball back and forth…too much.

Animal videos are awesome. Feeling that close to a tiger or bear, woa. Cute puppies, aww.

The amount of good 360 video is promising and growing exponentially. Last year, I was hard-pressed to find 10 minutes worth of quality 360 video, and today I can find a few hours worth. As more major studios invest in their slate of 360 content and we learn what works vs. what doesn’t, expect to see at least a 10x increase in the amount of available content over the next 12 months.

Thumbnails don’t do it. It’s difficult to sell a 360 video with the same thumbnails we used to drive clicks on web and mobile. I’ve seen creative applications of Gifs here, but I’m looking forward to something new.

In conclusion, 360 video is more than just a novelty, disproving my early beliefs. If you don’t agree, I encourage you to take the 60 minutes of VR challenge and share your experience. Put the headset on and don’t take it off for 60 minutes. Most of the best creators, writers, and directors still haven’t even used VR much less thought about what they would create with it. That will change rapidly. The best is yet to come.