Welcome to the age of user-generated virtual reality & 360 video
Ceci Mourkogiannis, a co-founder of Pie — the video platform and community dedicated to user-generated 360 & VR content — looks back to a time just a few months ago when the options for creating 360 videos were limited, and ponders the future of user-generated 360 video in 2016.
User-generated 360 video before user-generated 360 video
A few months ago my co-founders Jacob Trefethen, Guillaume Sabran, and I started building Pie: a video platform and community dedicated to user-generated virtual reality & 360 video content.
We must have seemed a little crazy — not least because at the time there wasn’t really such thing as user-generated 360 video.
Way back in the fall of 2015, your options for creating 360 videos were limited. If you wanted something of passable quality that could be viewed in a VR headset, your best option was to strap together 6 GoPros and stitch together the resulting videos using some (incredible but) technical video stitching software that was only accessible to prosumers. It was expensive, tricky, and only something that people with big budgets and experienced teams could pull off.
If you were looking for a point and shoot alternative, you could have turned to one of the small number of 360 cameras that supported video and sacrificed quality at the alter of convenience. The Ricoh Theta M15, the first consumer-priced 360 camera I shot on, was my first 360 love but the video quality was dire and probably too bad for any but the most die-hard 360 fans.
Users without cameras
While there wasn’t really such thing as a good consumer-priced 360 camera, there was such a thing as a person who really, really wanted there to be.
Attending and hosting 360 & VR meetups, reading Reddit threads, Facebook Groups and Twitter chains, we spoke to dozens of people who were incredibly enthusiastic and full of ideas of things to shoot in 360 when the consumer hardware was up to scratch. When we put up a small contact form on our website for people to sign up to borrow a 360 camera from us we were flooded with enquiries from people all around the world.
After many sleepless nights weighing up the risks of betting our careers on building a platform for something that didn’t exist yet, we decided to trust in the enthusiasm and creativity of the people who we met — would-be 360 creators without the devices to match their enthusiasm.
For those with their ears to the ground, late October 2015 marked an important turning point in the world of user-generated 360 video: the release of the Ricoh Theta S — a successor to the Theta M15 that provided HD 360 video just about good enough to be viewed in a VR headset.
The Theta S’s beautiful form factor, video quality, and ease of use made it an instant hit amongst the fledgling 360 video community. Its launch made it possible for us to launch the alpha version of Pie at the Matter Five Demo Day in December.
Although we have a lot to learn and there are a lot of challenges ahead for us, the surprisingly fast rate at which consumer 360 cameras are improving (surprising even to us!) makes us glad that we made the scary decision to focus wholeheartedly on UGC.
We’ve been totally overwhelmed by the quality and creativity of the first 360 creators we’ve let on the platform — all of whom are using consumer-priced 360 cameras.
Having had the benefit of watching some of the first truly user-generated 360 footage out there, we wanted to share with you some of the insights we’ve gathered so far — and we’d love to hear any you’ve had in the response section below.
360 cameras fit into people’s lives better than you’d think — and better than your current device
For me the first big ‘aha’ moment came with the realization that 360 cameras fit naturally into people’s lives. And that’s because 360 cameras do something simple and brilliant that no other capture device has yet managed: they capture the moments that matter without interrupting the moments that matter.
Posing for a traditional photograph or video takes you and the person behind the camera out of the moment. As a subject, you’re forced to move into the frame and stay there. The person behind the camera, amateur or otherwise, must usher her subjects into view and ensure that all elements are caught between the four edges of the shot.
By contrast, 360 videography allows us all to get on with our lives and enjoy the present — confident that we’re going to capture the moment we’ve been waiting for. You can’t endlessly fiddle to get the shot right because there’s not much you can control — what is, is.
Because the presence of 360 cameras is so unobtrusive in this respect, on Pie we’ve seen videos marked by their spontaneity, randomness, and lovingly accidental qualities come to the fore.
360 videos are more personal than you’d think — and they’re definitely the future of vlogging
When you’re shooting in 360 you’ve got to decide whether you want to try to hide from the camera entirely, or embrace the fact that you’re going to be in the shot.
While high-end VR productions have tended to choose the former option, most of the user-generated footage I’ve seen has prominently featured the creator — often holding the camera out in front of their faces at the same position and height you’d see if someone was taking a selfie.
The result is an extra-special kind of vlog that we’ve seen become the first nascent genre on Pie: people sharing their lives in 360 degrees, and narrating their experiences as they happen.
With 360 videography, you can’t “point” the camera at the thing you’re interested in. So if you’re trying to get your viewer to look at something in particular or take note of something in your environment, you’ll have to tell them what to focus on. You’ll have to guide them through it.
Guiding your future-viewer through a 360 video as you make it is a unique experience that really connects you with your audience in a way I haven’t felt before.
A few weeks ago I took my Ricoh Theta S to CES in Las Vegas. I didn’t know many people in Las Vegas or at CES and felt a little nervous staying in an Airbnb far away from the strip (ah startup budgets). I found that my Ricoh Theta S became my new best friend. I spoke to it as I roamed miles of casino floors trying to locate where my meetings were and I narrated my journey to the fish-eye lens facing me as if I was Skyping my best friend.
When the camera is experiencing everything that you are as well as your own reactions, it really is a lot like experiencing the moment with someone else.
And that’s part of the reason why …
When we first started building Pie we weren’t entirely sure what kind of community it would become.
In the few weeks since we launched our closed beta, we’ve already begun to see some fascinating community behaviors emerge. Most of all, we’ve seen that our first users (most of whom are also creators) have formed deep connections with other people creating 360 videos all around the world.
We’re excited about what Facebook 360 video will do for the way that we all share 360 videos with close friends and family, but we believe that Pie will provide a much-needed place for 360 creators and 360 fans to develop real connections with people they’ve never met in person. I’ve become hooked on the almost daily vlogs of some of our users who live in places I’ve never been — from Hawaii to Japan and the U.S. National Parks — and it’s awesome seeing how our early community is so engaged in the lives and stories of others on the platform.
We also have a separate Slack community for our creators to get to know each other (if you sign up to join our waiting list you’ll automatically receive an invite) and we’ve seen first-hand what the value of community is for 360 at this early stage. We’ve seen 360 creators swapping tips on how to get the most out of their devices, generous 360 creators in far-flung locations offer to go and film a site that someone else has never seen, and we’ve seen how a close-knit community can really help accelerate the spread of 360 know-how — with the result that creators on Pie are making better and better content every day.
You really don’t need a VR headset to enjoy 360 videos — your phone is enough
When we started working on Pie, I think that we all thought that we were waiting for two things: widespread adoption of VR headsets, and consumer 360 cameras capable of producing videos with good enough quality to be consumed in VR.
Over the last few months, we’ve been surprised by just how compelling it is to view 360 videos on mobile — without any headset at all. Initially people are most interested in viewing 360 videos using the ‘magic window’ technique: which involves moving your phone all around as if you’re looking through a window into another world. Pretty cool.
But we’ve found that the most common way of viewing 360, and the one we like the best, is by swiping: left, right, up, down, all-around. For the viewer, it gives the sense of being able to control the scene and frame entirely.
While the 360 video might not have a ‘frame’, technically speaking, the phone’s rectangular screen certainly does — and it’s great fun as a viewer to change what’s in the shot and play director.
Again, it’s something that feels incredibly natural for most. It has something of the qualities of pinching to zoom — it’s about getting the perspective you want.
Most interestingly, I’ve personally found that having watched a lot of 360 videos makes it almost unbearable to watch regular ‘flat’ videos on my phone. One of the strangest things that has happened to me since entering the 360 video world is that whenever I watch a flat video on my smartphone I am constantly imagining what is outside the frame and I have to stop myself from swiping around to see more.
In other words, I think that 360 videos are fundamentally changing the way we relate to visual media. I don’t think that traditional videos and cinematography will ever be totally displaced (at least not in the next few years), but I do think that we’ll develop a visual sensibility that expects 360 and expects as a default to be able to control the field of view.
VR & 360 videos are pretty different
One important thing to note is that there are 360 videos which work excellently when viewed on mobile but are terrible viewed using a VR headset, and vice versa.
Of course, the textbook difference that’s usually given to differentiate between VR & 360 is that the former is stereoscopic and interactive, whereas the latter just refers to the field of view. But I think that this year will see more fundamental artistic and conceptual differences emerge between the two.
I’m just beginning to see trends here and still have a lot to learn, but as one quick example landscapes are terribly boring viewed on mobile but can be awesome in VR.
VR is all about the experiential qualities of the footage — how it makes you feel, the mood it puts you in and the atmosphere it creates — whereas in 360 you want multiple subjects that grab your attention and lead you to want to explore a scene with your fingertips.
Bottom-up innovation will push VR storytelling forward
The most important thing I’ve learned at Pie is that innovation in VR & 360 storytelling can come from anywhere and from anyone.
While high-end production studios and Hollywood directors will continue to develop new and fascinating ways to take advantage of virtual reality storytelling, some of the most innovative uses I’ve seen in 360 video have come from people relentlessly experimenting with consumer-level 360 cameras.
By lowering the barrier to entry, the new LG 360 Cam and Samsung Gear 360 are going to massively accelerate the rate of learning and help to empower a new generation of creators and storytellers to change the way we learn about our world.
At this stage I still have more questions than answers, and I’m sure that this year will be full of surprises as user-generated VR & 360 begins to reach more and more people. But while there are plenty of unknowns and unknown unknowns, the age of user-generated VR & 360 video is well and truly upon us … and I can’t wait to see what happens.
Pie is currently accepting signups for its closed beta. Sign up here to be one of the first to share and view 360 videos on the Pie platform.
We love to hear from anyone with an interest in 360 video, so reach out anytime via email@example.com