With recent headlines covering the rise of 180-degree video platforms and cameras, some (already) may be contemplating the future of 360-degree and VR video. After all, dozens of cameras and equipment have been introduced to help bring 360-degree video to the masses, yet the hype around 180-degree video can’t be ignored.
But like with any industry innovation, markets gradually shift and settle into their place that at times becomes a balance of innovations and demand. Just as photographers moved from shooting film to digital cameras, as audiophiles moved from CDs to music downloads and the printed page transitioned to e-reader technologies; the photo and video markets are morphing from pictures and video to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) market opportunities, and 180-degree video may be another stepping stone to help content creators and consumers shift to the immersive experience 360-degree VR video provides.
360-degree content is driving VR demand
It wasn’t long ago that the development of VR content relied heavily on computer generated graphics, complex programming languages, and expensive hardware. But with new cameras that capture 360-degree video, the ability for just about anyone to create a 360-spherical video is in reach of the mass market. In fact, many retailers like Target, Best Buy and Amazon have already realized the business return on these new market realities. But, it’s important, as an industry that we recognize that 360-degree and 180-degree video is not synonymous with VR video.
360-degree cameras use two or more lens modules to create a single 360-degree spherical image. The still pictures and video captured with most 360 cameras are 2D. In other words, they are a photograph that has been warped into a circle so you can navigate the image on your computer, tablet or phone by just dragging the image around with your mouse or finger. However, with the explosive growth and curiosity with VR, many people have started to play their 360-degree 2D content in a VR headset in an effort to have a more immersive experience and to gain that sense of presence VR promises.
However, the practice of watching a 2D video in a VR headset can be uncomfortable and is often misleading; primarily because the human eyes don’t see in 2D but rather 3D. When we put on a headset, our subconscious expects to see depth, just as we do when we see things in real life. However, a video developed by 2D 360 cameras creates a single video in two dimensions, height, and width; it still looks flat. But the world around us is very different than a traditional photo, video or painting; it has depth.
Depth Perception is how our brain makes sense of things that are near or far from us. Our brain can decode the world around us because we have two eyes; each eye sees the world from a slightly different point of view, and it’s this change in perspective that gives our brain the information it needs to make sense of where subjects are in relationship to one another. Delivering this sort of depth is what makes the magic of immersive VR come to life.
Bridging the gap from flat to VR 360-degree video
Getting past seeing a “flat” video in a VR headset requires an incremental leap in science and a bit of technology too. 3D or VR video requires two videos, each taken from a slightly different point of view, to give our brain enough information to do its job and recreate a 3D world. Although this is not incredibly difficult with a single point of view, much like a traditional camera sees, the complexities mount when the final video is a full 360-degree spherical movie.
To capture the entire world around us and provide the points of view needed to recreate a stereoscopic 3D view; a VR camera system requires a minimum of eight camera modules. Each of these camera models simultaneously recording the same scene at slightly different points of view. Now, those of us who have shot video for years know the complexities of dealing with just one single video stream, never mind the overwhelming realities of eight videos with every pixel and every frame tracked so they can be assembled later into a VR video for playback in a headset.
Which brings us to assembling a VR video into a format that can be easily edited and shared across a network of head mounted displays. Often referred to as “stitching” or “rendering” the process is necessary to combine multiple camera angles into a single VR video file. Bringing all the data together is an art form in and of itself and stitching algorithms are highly protected trade secrets of the companies that provide them. In practice, strapping a bunch of GoPro cameras to a rig is the easy part. Combining that data, eliminating stitch lines, managing multiple exposures, providing accurate color throughout then splitting that data into two distinct videos, from two points of view (left and right eye), requires some powerful computers and the software that makes it all possible.
Major companies have poured millions of dollars into creating the 360 VR video systems available today. The problem with these solutions is that they are not attainable at an accessible price point (typically ranging from $25,000 to $100,000), require a skilled and experienced operator, and often require additional post production service fees to render and stitch video into a usable form. In short, with these setups, it’s not reasonable for an individual – whether prosumer or consumer – to create their own VR video to share immersive experiences. As a result, it is severely limiting the amount of quality VR content entering the market. And of these issues may be addressed by 180-degree cameras, the fully immersive experience is lost with 180, which is what VR lends itself best to.
This is creating a bit of a chicken and egg problem with consumers not finding enough compelling content to make the leap to adopting VR, and at the same time not bringing the viewership to justify the spend and risk associated with VR content creation. Overcoming the difficulties and complexities in creating VR content is a significant monetization opportunity for the VR industry as well as a way for retailers to recover lost revenue from the declining photography market.
One answer to this would be to stoke the proliferation of content for VR, which will not only stimulate the use of VR headsets for current owners, but also encourage the purchase and adoption of VR headsets to the non-gaming customer. Companies can capitalize on this opportunity by developing complete end-to-end solutions, which include equipment and software to not only capture 3D 360 video, but also stitch and render it in open industry file formats.
For example, one 4k video would be set up to provide a left eye experience and a second, spatially offset video provides a view from the right eye. When a video is captured and played back in a VR headset, you’ll see not only 360-degree views, but more importantly, the 3D effect that makes VR video so lifelike, highlighting the key difference between standard 2D-360 video and 3D-360 video that’s created for VR.
The end-to-end market potential for VR is immense – not only for content creators, but for hardware manufacturers. According to market researcher SuperData, VR software and hardware revenues could hit about $28 billion by 2020.
Regardless of your current views on 180-degree video vs. 360-degree video vs. VR video there is no doubt that 2D 360 video has played a significant role in evolving the space and creating initial demand, while 180 stands to cut costs and complexities – setting the stage for the much more immersive and grand experience for viewers with true VR content. And, although there are still many technological hurdles and content creation innovations to be realized for VR video, we are on the cusp taking this amazing new frontier mainstream as we create a more accessible environment for both content creators and consumers.