What is VR180?
For those of you who don’t know, VR180, is a virtual reality video format with a 180° panorama. It was announced as a new format supported by Google/YouTube, in 2017. VR180 cameras, such as the current VR180 master, the Z Cam K2 Pro, features 2 ultra wide angle fisheye lenses over 2 seperate camera sensors (in fact, 2 cameras in the K2 Pro’s case!). The recorded videos from both sensors are then stitched together in post production, using software such as Mistika VR (our tool of choice). This creates a stereoscopic 3D video, which when viewed in a vr headset is an experience that leaps out at you.
When first announced by YouTube, there was a flurry of VR180 cameras revealed by partner manufacturers and examples of initial content to show people what it was about.
However, some of the cameras announced never saw the light of day and things went a bit quiet on the VR180 side of the fence. Clearly, VR180 had an image problem.
Some never liked it from the start. “It’s not real virtual reality”, or “it’s not immersive enough” were some of the cries. Sometimes, critics voices speak the loudest and inhibit the growth of a technology before it’s had a chance to grow and express itself. This is especially true in the age of online influencers. In the case of VR180, high quality content which would help it flourish was hard to come by. If there is a diverse ecosystem of videos out there, lots of different types of people will consume it. After all, content is king and to me, this is part of the problem VR180 faced.
Well, not letting the critics drown out the experiences we had, we are proud to come out as VR180 enthusiasts. The format is perfect for quite a few different types of video content, which we’ll explore more later. However, Let’s start off our defence by talking about degrees of freedom.
The 3 Degrees (of Freedom)
In virtual reality, degrees of freedom (DoF) refers to the freedom of movement a user/viewer has when interacting with content. 3 degrees of freedom (or 3DoF) is rotational movement on the X, Y and Z axis. In other words, it’s all about being stationary and moving your head. 3DoF is pretty much the way we consume VR video. This is in contrast to 6 degrees of freedom (6DoF), which also tracks translational movement (backwards, forwards, laterally or vertically). This is the preferred and most immsersive form of VR and games are built usually with 6DoF movement tracking. It’s the virtual world people can move around in and there’s not much doubt it’s the best way to interact in a VR space. This also means a 360° field of view (or world view) is needed to make it compelling and believable as a world.
But what about video? Well, right now, we don’t have VR headsets, nor many cameras that can capture such high resolution and then display on FUHD (8K) displays, so content can be zoomed (if moving forward), allowing us to view objects closer. Besides, issues with volumetric light capture and the fixed position of a camera (compared with a 3D world built in Unity or Unreal Engine, where computational rendering allows light to be cast correctly in a virtual world. One day, probably in the next few years, volumetric video will become more accessible and, at some point, mainstream, but til then we have to make the best of what we have.
So, why is VR180 a good alternative to 360° video? Who would want half of the experience of full 360? Let me explain.
Please Take Your Seats in the Auditorium. This Evening's Performance is About to Commence...
When consuming virtual reality content as a passive viewer, much like visiting the cinema, going to a gig or the theatre, we are usually focused on what’s in front of us. Certainly at seated experiences, from the amphitheatres of antiquity to an IMAX cinema today, it’s all about watching the show. This is where VR180 excels.
When seated, watching a video in VR is a much more comfortable experience than a 360° video. We’d need the genetics of an owl to fully take in what’s all around us. On the other hand, a 180° video is a much more comfortable experience. There’s no surprises behind us (clearly scuppers horror VR movie making) and all eyes are in front.
The app that converted me to VR180 was Adam Savage’s Tested, which I watched on an Oculus Go. This app features videos from makers – people who make stop motion models or SFX latex masks and I loved it. I felt justified that VR180 worked. As I sat watching the videos, I was convinced of the merits of VR180 in passive entertainment settings. It just works.
Sometimes, tech companies or enthusiasts are too quick to write new innovations off (yes, I’m talking about you Google Daydream and I won’t forget you, Samsung Gear VR – we’ll come back to you next time). If it doesn’t take off straight away in the way they intended, it loses appeal for the backers. Support gets less and people look elsewhere, like literally. Much like a spoilt kid, a new toy quickly becomes obselete the next time something shiny comes along.
I just watched Malcolm Gladwell’s keynote speech on the Unity for Humanity launch and he talked of how the telephone, when the first exchanges were installed in the 1870’s, the inventors (white, middle class engineers) saw it as a functional tool only for important business calls, when urgency was required. No vision or foresight was ever given to the emotional revolution in communication that was to follow. It took until the 1920s before it was much more widely adopted as a communication medium. It’s the people and the stories that help a technology prosper. Or in Malcom Gladwell’s words:
“Stories have power, where arguments do not”.
It’s up to us as creators to help technology speak. It’s not about the critique on why VR180° is dead, it’s the content and people’s stories that can only prove them wrong.
Green Shoots of the VR180 Rennaissance
The recently announced Oculus Quest 2 featured some new premuim content to help with the launch. One of the video series released on Oculus TV is Sir David Attenbrough’s Micro Monsters. Originally filmed in 2013 in 3D. It’s been adapted by the very clever folks at Alchemy Immersive, who’ve repurposed it as a VR180 experience. And it is an experience. Seeing insects in a VR headset as if we’ve been shrunk to the size of a fly is breathtaking and for me, shows that VR180 has a full life to live. It’s been knocked off by naysayers, but it’s climbing back up again, dusting itself off and ready to stand toe-to-toe with 360°. The best way to do this? Great content, some more great content and then a bit more. If people like what they see, the growth in the format is self-perpetuating. We hope we’re part of that story too.