Most everyone has heard of and interacted with 360 images and videos, either by dragging the image around with a mouse, panning and tilting a smartphone or while wearing a VR headset. However, this new type of photography doesn’t end with 360 videos; there is also VR video and VR180 formats. While all 3 formats are related, there are distinct differences in how to interact with each post-capture.
The 360-video format is essentially a full sphere panorama, 360 degrees around and 180 degrees up and down. A minimum of 2 cameras (and upwards of dozens) are used to record images all around the camera. These images are then “stitched” together to form a single spherical image. The stitching process can be thought of as taking individual pictures and stretching them on a globe until all the edges match up into one seamless image. When there are many cameras, the stitching process can be complicated needing a high-end computer or a cloud service to accomplish. In the case of 2 lenses, the stitching may only require the power of a smartphone or be done in camera. Generally, more cameras mean higher quality or higher resolution final image, along with a higher priced camera. A 2 lens 360 camera may be capable of real-time stitching and then live streaming 360 videos. Important considerations to make when picking out a camera.
360 video and its ability to capture everything going on around it makes it perfect in some situations and confusing in others. When you record a 360 video, you are essentially putting the camera in a place where the viewers head is going to be. Put the camera in the front row of a concert; the viewer will feel like they are there, choosing to look around wherever they like. Put the camera on stage, the same effect from a very different perspective. Re-experiencing events or locations is an ultimate strength of the format, making once in a lifetime experiences something you can experience over an over, often noticing things you weren’t looking toward at the time.
This strength of 360 videos has two issues. The first problem is you, the camera operator. If you can see the camera, you are in the shot. Now in the concert example, you can blend in with the crowd. However, that’s not always going to be the case, and you might find the need to hide from the camera or wear it on a helmet, so you are only noticeable if the viewer looks directly down. The second issue is you can’t know where the viewer is looking. Again, not so much of a problem for capturing a location or event but if you are trying to tell a story it get’s a little more complicated. You can’t know where the viewer is looking so they may miss a pivotal moment in your storytelling. Thinking of the area around your camera as a stage and using light, sound and other theatrical techniques to guide attention is one solution. With having the 360 equivalent of a 3-ring circus, where there is something to see in all directions, is another. Either way, it can make for a complicated shoot.
The VR video format is much the same as 360 video, using multiple cameras to capture everything going on around the camera but resulting in 2 image spheres one for the left eye and one for your right eye, so you see 360 videos in 3D. Now, of course, you need to be viewing this video inside of a VR headset to see the 3D effect, on the web or your smartphone it looks no different than a regular 360. Now before you roll your eyes and think this is another “3D-TV” gimmick, nothing could be further from the truth. VR video is immersive in a way that is very surprising. Even to the point where a subject that moves close to you, feels close, even intimately so.
There are two methods that VR video cameras use to create the 3D effect. First is by having multiple pairs of cameras facing in the same direction, with each of the lens pair set apart just like the human eyes. All the left eye cameras are used to make one image sphere and all the right eye cameras making the other. The second method is to use photogrammetry (the science of making distance measurements from multiple photographs) techniques to generate a depth map that is used to warp the regular 360 info into two 360s one for each eye.
Again, there are a few issues to consider. As I mentioned before, you’ll need to wear a VR headset to see the 3D effect; its early days for VR and not many people are going to experience VR video this way. Of course, this “future proofs” your videos as there may come a day where flat 360 videos are considered old-fashioned, much like black and white video today. The other issue is resolution and bandwidth, with one video for each eye you have twice as much information as a regular 360 so will need to either double the bandwidth used or cut the resolution in half.
The VR180 format is an attempt to make the best of both worlds between traditional photography and the new wave of 360/VR video. VR180 uses two cameras facing in the same direction that each record a 180-degree half sphere image, one for each eye. There is no stitching of the images needed so no need for that extra step in processing. In a VR headset, you see a 3D image that cuts off to black behind you. You still can turn your head around and look at what you like much like you would if you were seated on a couch against a wall. On the web or a smartphone, the video looks like a regular wide shot with no moving the image around required.
VR180 solves some of the issues of a full 360. You can use a VR180 to direct your viewers focus much like a regular camera, behind the camera, or pointed directly at you if that’s your thing. The viewer can still look around, but you get to choose the primary direction they are looking. The format also eliminates the resolution and bandwidth issue of the VR video format as you are getting 3D without doubling the amount of information. Of course, you are giving up the total immersion of a full 360 view and the ability to look in any direction, but in many cases, this is a plus.
About the Author:
Rob Crasco is an independent Virtual Reality, Virtual World & 360 Video Influencer / Developer / Consultant. Background in computer science and marketing, worked for AT&T, Ziplink, News Corp, and iBasis. Decade of experience in virtual worlds, top 10 rated VR & AR influencer.