360-degree video: what is it?

Film has been around for over a 100 years, starting with the famous first motion picture of a horse running from 1878. Over the decades this medium as evolved and developed itself to what it is nowadays. From The Great Train Robbery to Charlie Chaplin, from silent films to talkies, from 2D to 3D. We learned how to tell stories with this medium that capture the attention of the audience. For all those years of growth in film, one thing has stayed the same from its brith to now. A series of rectangles (projected) on a screen. So what is the next step in visual storytelling?

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360-degree video

Over the last couple of years a new medium has been developing regarding the next step in visual storytelling, it is called Virtual Reality (VR). Which can be seperated in two categories, “True” VR and 360-degree video. To learn more about the difference, click here. It is a medium that we are still discovering and learning how to use. But what is it exactly?

360-degree video is basically a video that records in all directions at the same time and when viewing the video you are able to look around in all those directions. These videos are recorded with special cameras with multiple lenses or a rig with multiple cameras. The footage of that camera is later “stitched” together, which is combining the recorded images to one whole image. Some cameras already do that themselves otherwise there are editting softwares that do that for you.

Once the video is recorded and edited, it can be viewed several ways. One could watch it on the computer and look around in the video by click and dragging with the mouse or by using the W, A, S and D keys or arrow keys (depending on what platform you are watching). The next step in watching the video is on your phone through the “magic window”, which is when you hold your phone horizontally and move it around to see different parts of the video. The most exciting way to experience a 360-degree video is by using a VR headset. Which is like a pair of glasses, it has two lenses where you stick your phone infront of. Now when looking around you it feels like you are standing in the video. And it is getting easier to share these 360-degree videos, with platforms like YouTube and Facebook that are supporting 360-degree videos now.

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Google Cardboard, one of the cheapest VR headsets

However, one thing that needs to be taken into consideradtion is that the quality is not as good yet as traditional film. Some 360-degree cameras might say that they can shoot at flat RAW or 4K, but once those images are rendered and viewed with a headset it doesn’t look that sharp, escpecially when moving around. Also when uploading to the internet (like YouTube or Facebook), the video file will be compressed. Which means you will lose quality compared to when exported directly to the playback device. So when watching 360-degree videos online, make sure to click on the maximum resolultion option.

Storytelling

360-degree video gives us the opportunity to tell stories in a different way. This medium opens a new world in storytelling, literally. You can step into another place, view the world with someone elses eyes and see things you normally wouldn’t be able to see. It is an immersive medium, you can actually feel like you are there. Someone who explains this really well is Chris Milk, a director and artist. He is a storyteller who is looking at the newest technology to get the audience more involved in the story. Now he is working a lot with Virtual Reality. He calls VR the “ultimate empathy machine”, because you feel like you are there, you are present in that world.

In his TED Talk The birth of virtual reality as an art form (July 2016), Chris Milk talks about how VR the last medium is of storytelling because it closes the gap between audience and storyteller. He says that VR fundamentally, moving past the spectacle and the hype, is a medium of human experience. “If cinema is this thing on a screen, literature is this thing on a page, VR is human experience in your consiousness”, says when talking about what kind of impact this medium has in this interview. Meaning that this is more than watching a film, it is the feeling of reality created by the input of your senses. This medium is allowing anyone, anywhere to let them experience something that they might never experience in their own life.

One of the current state of events is that the content is somewhat limited. According to Chris Milk, billions of dollars are invested in the hardware, but the content is not there yet. Some people mentioned that they could go through the content that was available to them and be done in a week. However, the “floodgates” are slowly being opened and content is dripping out with each day, escpecially since there are 360-degree cameras for the consumer on the market.

“We are at year one of the medium […] we are more learning grammar, than learning language” continues Chris Milk when talking about storytelling in VR. Right now you are standing/sitting still in the video, using only two senses, sight and hearing. But hopefully in the future you will be able to stand up, walk around and perhaps interact and speak. Not only does the language of storytelling evolve, but also the technical format is developing, allowing to develop the way of storytelling.

Conclusion

VR and 360-degree video are a new and promising way of telling stories. We are still learning the language of storytelling for the medium, but have already come a long way. The equipment is out there for consumers to use and content is being created everyday. With still quite some limitations, we are learning how to close the gap between audience and storyteller. One thing that is quite certain, is that VR is the next step in visual storytelling.

“We can only experiment, keep creating new canvases, keep painting new things on them”  – Chris Milk, 2013

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