Virtual reality experiences and 360 videos have been gaining tremendous popularity with their respective audiences, but from a technical standpoint, there is an understandable frustration about consumer confusion. Many laypeople are under the false impression that VR video and 360 video are indistinguishable from each other, believing the two formats are mere synonyms. While both may show filmed footage in 360-degree environments, this is where their similarities begin and end.
Knowing the differences between VR video and 360 video is essential for understanding which platform makes sense for different kinds of projects, as well as a well-rounded knowledge of the emerging new camera market as a whole.
The Differences Between VR and 360 Videos
If you’ve ever seen an advertisement that tries to take you “inside the experience” when browsing on your phone and exploring your social feeds -- that’s a 360 video. Three hundred sixty-degree videos aren’t just used in advertising, but in a broad range of professional and consumer experiences. Three hundred sixty-degree videos allow you to look around inside a still image or video by moving your phone or tablet in real space or making a similar gesture with your mouse on a desktop.
While 360 video provides a minor sense of immersion by simulating the experience of looking around an environment, there are a number of things that set it apart from VR video.
Unlike the 3D presentation of VR video, 360 videos are presented in 2D. This means that the image has height and width, but will always lack depth. Think of it like taking a big poster and wrapping it around you. You can turn around and look at the different pieces of the image, but it’s still just a flat picture. By contrast, VR video is recorded using multiple cameras at specific distances apart, which capture left eye / right eye differences. The videos created by these VR cameras are stitched together to create something much closer to real life, allowing users to surround themselves in a 3D experience while using a VR headset.
Another difference between 360 video and VR video is how we deal with motion; both the motion created by the camera during shooting and the motion created by the user during playback. When recording in a static location, 360-degree motion is entirely controlled by the user, allowing them to look and explore as they see fit. But once the camera begins to move, 360 video can create a disorienting effect if viewed in a VR headset. If we were to mount a 360 camera onto a motorcycle and race it around the track, it would result in some pretty cool footage to watch on a phone. If we were to take that same 360 video and put it in a VR headset, however, we’d run the risk of making the viewer uncomfortable at best and ...let’s call it “unpleasantly nauseous” at worst.
The techniques used to create VR video and 360 video are quite different, and as a result, have wildly different effects on audiences. In VR, our brains are trying to distinguish the real world from fantasy. Elements like camera motion and depth can make such fantasies succeed or fail. In short, what works for one audience won’t necessarily work for another.
Immersion is About Technology + Presentation
With such differences in hardware, techniques and end results, it only stands to reason that both 360 video and VR video are at their best when presented in different ways. Due to the issues with motion, as well as the flat nature of 360 video, such viewing experiences are generally best handled outside of a VR headset. Yes, there are many apps and options for accessing 360 video inside a VR headset, but just because something is possible doesn’t mean it is preferable.
A lot of the reason for this rush to bring 360 video to VR platforms isn’t because it’s a fit, but because despite the near constant buzz about VR, this is still a nascent platform that is desperate for truly immersive video experiences. Until there are more apps acting as portals for VR videos, and more creators making videos to support these portals, 360 video will continue to make poorly guided appearances in VR headsets. Eventually though, these should remain exclusively where 2D 360 experiences make the most sense, like smartphones and other portable screens.
By contrast, VR video in a headset can provide the truest sense of immersion. Users have full control over their motion, a sense of depth, positional 3D audio, and the ability to make both the sights and sounds of the outside world totally disappear. When done well, there’s nothing else quite like it.
Which Format Makes Sense When?
Choosing between VR video and 360 video all depends on the project you’re setting out to create. If you’re creating something targeted at an audience who will have access to VR headsets, you can take control of camera movement, and have the option to provide a sense of interactivity or control, VR video is the way to go. If you’re pursuing a flat screen by creating something that includes uncontrolled camera motion, 360 video might make more sense.
Both 360 and VR video can help put audiences in the middle of the action. The difference all comes down to how you want to display it. If you want viewers watching a Formula One race from the grandstands on their mobile phone, tablet or computer screen 360 video will do the job nicely. But if you want to put viewers behind the wheel of the first place winner, you’re better off steering towards VR.
Jim Malcolm is Humaneyes Techologies’ General Manager of North America, responsible for managing the launch and success of their Vuze VR Camera, the company’s 3D-360 degree VR system. With more than 25 years of experience in imaging and virtual reality (VR) markets, Jim is the current president of the leading trade association, The Imaging Alliance, the former president and CMO of Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation, and has more than a decade of leadership roles at Sony Electronics. Jim is often quoted by industry press and has spoken at top imaging and consumer electronics trade shows including CES, Summit.Live, PhotoPlus and others.