360 < > VR

No caption necessary, I’m assuming..

I’ve been looking for something meaningful to write for my first post on Medium. And I’ve failed in the eight attempts I’ve made so far, over the last four months.

So as a starting point, I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to Kevin Eva at VRFocus for a thought provoking article on the topic of 360 video vs VR. I’d also like to thank Ben Smith for simultaneously advocating 360 alongside VR — these perspectives combined significantly to help me shape some of my own thoughts on the topic.

Understanding the etymology and genesis of these two forms of modern media seems like a wonderful topic for a first Medium post.

In that spirit:

(1) Spherical vs Virtual

“360 degree” content is not quite the right term for the medium, IMO. It’s convenient, no doubt, but also misrepresentative. The real phrase for it was, and ought to be spherical video — far less catchy, but also more accurate.

So as a starting point, I think I’ll make it a point to only refer to this form as “spherical”, unless I run into a camera that only operates in a 360 field of view across a single flat plane.

360 / Spherical Panorama Timelapse using 6 GoPros. Source: https://vimeo.com/90312869

This is quite unlike the virtual content space, where the ability to interact supersedes the need for a full spherical field of view. A good example of this would be the gunners seat in Eve Gunjack — where the FOV is restricted to only what’s necessary for gameplay(try looking behind you!)

(2) Production Pipelines

It’s flat out expensive to produce high quality spherical content experiences. Right from the hardware that’s necessary to start out(GoPro, JauntVR), to the software(Kolor, VideoStitch) necessary to stitch it together,we’re seeing a new world emerge vis-a-vis enablers for this space — and when something’s new, it’s usually expensive.

Innovators like LucidCam are doing a fantastic job of trying to make this form of production accessible to the masses, but they’re only doing “half the job” (if that, assuming multiplanar spherical capture as the alternative), with 180 degree spatial capture.

VR content production, on the other hand, has a generally-defined roadmap based on existing tools that have been in place for some time now. Instead of expensive cameras, we use Photoshop to draw/visualize concepts, Maya/3DStudio Max to assemble environments, & Unity/Unreal Engine to build out the final experiences. This is a bit of a generalization, but not too far away from reality at all, given the speed at which VR demos/experiences are popping up!

When content can be produced so (relatively) economically, the implications on the resulting business models could be quite significant. I hope to be able to touch upon that aspect in another post soon.

(3) (Pre vs Real-Time) Rendering

The production pipelines for spherical and virtual content also lend excellent fodder for an introspection on the implications of each. When we’ve captured, stitched, and published a spherical video content piece, the narrative is well defined, constrained to what the producer/director wants us to see, and there’s not much else there.

Of course we can turn our heads around, upwards, downwards, sideways and take in different views of a scene, but we can’t move away from the points where the cameras were placed. GoPro launched their VR portal a few days ago, and in their video of the month(Tahiti Surf VR), all you can do is follow the camera that accompanied the surfer. Try going to the surface of the ocean. You can’t. Try moving away a little bit to get a different POV. No dice, still.

The content is pre-rendered(do check out this post on RoadToVR). What you see is what you get. Not only does it work easily on your computer, it’s brilliant for phone viewing. It’s the same as watching video, for the most part your phone won’t get heated up, and your battery life won’t diminish significantly from the experience. Good stuff, really.

But then we have VR content that is being rendered in real-time for the most part, and barring intricately thought out techniques to optimize for different hardware platforms, VR content thoroughly tests the mettle of your device(PC, Mac or Mobile). That’s why VR-ready PCs are expensive, and truly VR-ready phones are the high end ones.

This is the pivotal reason why I don’t believe spherical content is symbiotic for VR — the hardware specs necessary to experience both forms of content are quite different, and there’s no way that an impetus in the one (360/spherical) will lead to an increased adoption of the other(VR).

(4) Browser vs App

That leads me into the consumption/distribution options for both forms of content. This should be a no-brainer, really — spherical content can easily be experienced on a browser, with the disclaimer that a VR headset significantly enhances the degree of immersion.

The same can’t be said of VR content, as Amitt Mahajan has been writing about recently here and here. The current paradigm of VR content distribution is indeed analogous to the app store models we’re used to — and it’s going to be some time before we see browser-based VR emerging as a mainstream option.

The conclusion that Amitt draws in his recent post is important to note:

“For high definition content, like games, a download and install via an app store will continue to make sense. For lightweight VR content, however, the streaming approach will allow VR content creators to easily publish and be assured that consumers will be able to quickly access and immerse themselves with minimal friction”

This is already applicable to 360/spherical content. VRSE and NYT VR are what I’d call high-end spherical content experiences, and both require 200MB+ file downloads after the initial app download. While these downloads can possibly be mitigated by streaming in-app down the road(eg: VRTV), it is difficult to imagine a similar scenario for high end VR apps going forward.

Responsive WebVR solution. Source: Arturo Paracuellos (http://unboring.net/cases/deepLinking.html)

(5) “Show me the money!”

That was the main talking point from Kevin & Ben that led to this post. Does 360/Spherical video effectively have the same implications for business as “pure” VR?

Aside from more headsets being sold, I really don’t see anything else that indicates the one playing into the other’s business model.

360/Spherical video seems a lot like online video, with the upside being that the added immersive potential (using VR headsets) would lead to better consumer engagement and therefore, better conversion numbers than online (2D) video ads demonstrated.

VR content, on the other hand, has tremendous in-experience advertising potential — and is possibly the best way for brands to engage with consumers. The speed with which brands have jumped on to the VR bandwagon validates this theory significantly. ,

Linden Labs’ “Second Life” had already laid the foundations for this form of advertising in virtual worlds some years ago, and while the phenomenon cooled at the time, it isn’t inconceivable to imagine that being a factor of timing and circumstance. With HMDs now in place, Project Sansar is likely going to build strongly upon that foundation and demonstrate this huge potential — in the very near future.

(6) “When you’re good to mama..”

“So what’s the one conclusion we can bring this number to? When you’re good to mama, mama’s good to you.”

Reciprocity is a wonderful thing. It goes without saying that 360 degree video and VR content have clearly been reciprocal in catalyzing awareness of, and adoption in, the virtual reality market space.

Queen Latifah as Matron “Mama” Morton, in Chicago.

But they’re also different from each other in so many ways.

  • 360/Spherical video production has a huge potential for democratization, similar to web video. That’s not at all the case for VR content — we’re likely going to see studios and game companies as being the only ones making VR content in the years to come.
  • 360 content can be viewed using literally all device + hardware combinations that VR has to offer. Highly immersive VR content, on the other hand, needs top of the line hardware & HMDs for it to be worth its salt in experiential value.
  • 360 content will likely be monetized exactly like online video — ads and subscriptions. VR content, on the other hand, will very likely be monetized like games & apps (freemium > in-app purchases > in-experience ads)

This disparity in production, consumption and monetization of content is likely why it’s important to demarcate these two forms early on by evangelists of our space.

Yes, they may very well coexist, and co-generate interest in each other — but other than that, they’re empirically quite different.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to your thoughts!


(Speaking of evangelists, I’d like to send a big shout to one of VRs top advocates: Brian Hart. He joined our team in an advisory role in February of this year, and has been a fantastic mentor, guide & friend to us since. Thanks for being such a wonderful all-round team mate, Brian — I look forward to building a meaningful VR company with you)