Virtual/Augmented/360 Video Reality

Virtual/Augmented/360 Video Reality
One of the hottest new developments in media over the past few years has been the advent of immersive storytelling. A few words about the terminology and the technology. At this point, in early 2018, immersive storytelling manifests as any or all of several different technologies. Let’s take a look at what some of the most popular terms for immersive video are and what they actually mean.

VR (Virtual Reality). The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines VR as “an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment; also: the technology used to create or access a virtual reality.” VR is usually, but not always, observed by the viewer using a set of VR goggles, which both opens up the virtual world the viewer experiences and paradoxically isolates them from outside stimuli from the “real” world.

AR (Augmented Reality). The same dictionary defines augmented reality as “an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera); also: the technology used to create augmented reality.” As you can see, the definitions of the two technologies share some similarities, yet the two are separate and distinct.

360 Video. This is where the terminology becomes murky: 360 video means that the footage was acquired using a 360-degree camera or array of multiple cameras so that a full 360-degree view of a given scene is photographed. If it makes sense, 360 video isn’t necessarily used in VR or AR, but all VR and a good portion of AR scenes are captured as 360-degree video. But does passively viewing straight, stitched-together 360-degree video qualify as virtual reality? What about augmented reality viewed on a smartphone that was shot using a 240-degree camera array? That’s not technically 360-degree video, but the tools used to capture AR video are often the same as the tools used to capture VR and 360-degree video.

Thanks to the rising popularity of VR and AR, a number of solutions for capturing 360º content are coming to market, from smaller tools using action cameras to dedicated VR-specific rigs.
Thanks to the rising popularity of VR and AR, a number of solutions for
capturing 360º content are coming to market, from smaller tools using action
cameras to dedicated VR-specific rigs.

Still Versus Motion

As seen on most popular social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram and others, 360 stills have become fairly popular. Many mobile phones are already equipped to shoot true panoramic stills, and some upcoming models are capable of 360-degree stills as well as 360-degree video. The next step will be the mass popularization of 360-degree video on social media platforms. The 360 stills are generally much simpler to capture than 360 video. The equipment for stills is smaller, lighter, simpler and much less expensive, although in consumer gear, the lines are blurring as most 360 video cameras can also shoot stills now. The post process to generate 360 still files is generally much simpler than to stitch together 360 video. There are valid uses for both formats, though 360 stills and video work pretty differently from the viewer’s perspective.

You’ll find as you read and research about VR/AR/360 video that these terms and several others are used relatively interchangeably. That’s okay because you now have an understanding of what’s what in immersive storytelling. It’s up to you to define what someone means when they use the term VR. For the remainder of this article, when I’m speaking about VR, understand I could be discussing true virtual reality or merely just 360-degree video.

Why VR?

Virtual reality is now well established, and the tools to create it are becoming less and less expensive and easier to use. If you think about it, in the early days of cinema, in silent films, we only had a black-and-white camera placed in the audience’s POV in front of the theater. As cinema evolved, we learned to more creatively utilize the camera, panning it, experimenting with different shooting techniques and multiple points of view, zooming into people’s faces, cross-cutting, using multiple locations and lots of other tricks to increase cinema’s visual vocabulary.

VR to a film is what modern cinema is to silent film. VR is the next step that redefines immersive storytelling. The POV and cinematography break the fourth wall that separates the actors, and the audience goes away. The viewers of VR aren’t just passively looking at a monitor or theater screen. Suddenly, the viewer is inside that “frame,” freely looking around. In VR, this unique sensation of “being inside” is known as “presence.” VR storytelling is a lot like being inside a video game. The idea of a director, as we have in TV and cinema, is being redefined in VR. The person whose job it is to tell the story is more like an “experience chef.” Think about it: Each person’s experience in a VR world will be different from everyone else’s.

The Nuts And Bolts

Now that we have at least skimmed some of the basic ideas of immersive storytelling, let’s take a look at the tools that are available today to shoot, stitch, assemble and upload VR/AR and 360 video. While pro-level VR/360 cameras are available that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, in this article, we’re going to take a look at gear that’s a little more accessible for the average budget.

Small, handheld 360º action cameras are good tools to get started in the VR-creation space.
Small, handheld 360º action cameras are good tools to get started in the VR-creation space.

VR/360 Cameras

While there are dozens of VR/360 cameras available on the market, with more being introduced every day, we’re going to take a look at three popular models that are very accessible to almost anyone with at least a few hundred dollars to spend.

The Theta V Spherical Camera ($429) is the latest version of Ricoh’s earlier Theta cameras, which have gained immense popularity for their combination of accessible features like small size and weight, simplicity and ease of use, relatively high-quality images and video.

  • The Theta V shoots smooth 360-degree video at 30 fps at 3840×1920 pixels or 4K. It supports the H.264 file format for video recording.
  • Hi-res 360-degree spherical stills and video with improvements to the image quality. The new Qualcomm Snapdragon processor has completely enhanced the exposure accuracy and white balance algorithm.
  • Theta has a four-channel microphone that supports 360-degree spatial audio recording. Built-in omnidirectional audio is recorded not just in the horizontal direction, but also in the vertical direction.
  • The world’s first remote playback-capable, fully spherical camera allows users to wirelessly play back 360-degree images and videos on a large-screen display using a compatible wireless display adapter.
  • The camera can always be connected to a smartphone using Bluetooth low energy (BLE). This function provides improvements in usability and power consumption.

The Insta360 ONE Action Camera ($319) shoots 360 photo and video.

  • The Insta360 ONE captures at resolutions of 4K and 24 megapixels (7K: 6912×3456). Together with the optical flow image stitching, the camera offers adaptability and convenience, with three modes of operation: standalone use, remote control via Bluetooth and control via direct Lightning connection.
  • With FreeCapture technology, you can effortlessly hone in on the key moments of a spherical video, transferring the original 360 footage into a standard 1080p fixed-frame video that’s ready to share anywhere. You can also seamlessly shift from standard perspectives to the unique shots that are only possible with 360 cameras, such as “tiny planet” and “rabbit hole” effects.
  • The slow-motion mode and advanced stabilization algorithm work together to achieve the Bullet-time effect. You can start your own epic shots with no hassle.
  • After attaching the ONE to a purpose-built selfie stick, the stick will be automatically erased from the footage. ONE works like a flying camera—capturing stunning 360 views from an overhead angle.
Virtual/Augmented/360 Video Reality
Video sharing websites are now featuring 360º content sections.

For Samsung phone users, the Gear 360 Real 360° 4K VR Camera ($229) is a logical alternative to other VR/360 camera setups.

  • Capture 4K video and 15-megapixel photos thanks to dual 180° lenses.
  • Gear 360 is easy to hold and take with you, and has an IP53 water-resistant rating.
  • Preview and edit your videos with an easy-to-use app, or share them straight to social media or Samsung VR with your Galaxy S8 or S8+.
  • Upload your photos or videos to Samsung VR to experience your footage in virtual reality.

All of the cameras above feature two sensors, which the camera uses to shoot a spherical 360-degree view, either for video or for stills. All of the cameras use either hardware and or software to seamlessly stitch together the two videos or stills to deliver 360-degree files.

Virtual/Augmented/360 Video Reality
With 360º support, video editing apps are making it easier than ever to create VR content.

How To Edit And Share 360 Videos And Stills

Not every website can display 360 images and videos as 360 images and video, but the number of social-media platforms that are supporting 360 content is growing by the day. Facebook, Flickr, Vimeo and YouTube can all display 360 content, with more social-media sights coming online every day. For stills, Adobe recently added 360 photo editing to Photoshop, and Apple’s FCP X 10.4 also supports editing and the display of 360-degree video, while Adobe’s Premiere Pro Creative Cloud has already been supporting 360 video for a while. Also keep in mind that in order to be viewed as actual VR, your content must be viewable with VR headsets as well as on mobile phone screens. The Samsung headsets adapt the user’s Samsung phone into the VR headset, but other VR headsets offer more sophisticated VR feature sets as well as more pixel resolution.

Virtual/Augmented/360 Video Reality
Video editing programs like Final Cut Pro (above) and Adobe Premier now allow for editing of VR footage.

What About VR/AR/360 Video At A Professional Level?

Up to this point, we’ve mainly concentrated on consumer-level 360 products as a way of getting your feet wet in the VR/AR/360 video world. If you try immersive storytelling and want to expand into it as part of your business and as a portion of your income stream, you have to expand beyond the same consumer items that your clients may be using. Keep in mind that as you increase in features, resolution and sophistication, the price for the cameras increases exponentially, and many of the popular cameras generate footage that has to be stitched together in postproduction using separate editing programs like Premiere Pro and FCPX.

At the pro level, as of today, VR cameras are more often rented as a package than purchased at this point. The technology changes so rapidly that for many pro users, investing in a VR camera system that may become outdated in a matter of weeks doesn’t seem like a wise use of business capital. A good assortment of pro-level VR rental camera rigs can be viewed at the Radiant Images website, a Los Angeles, California, innovator in VR technology development: radiantimages.com/virtual-reality/vr360.

Where Is The VR/AR And 360-Degree Video/Stills Market Headed?

At this point, VR/AR and 360 video are still finding their niche. The challenge is that many TV and cinema content generators tend to approach VR from the traditional storytelling perspective that really doesn’t exploit the new VR medium. You have to move past many of the terms and mindset that you’ve used for your entire career as a photographer, cinematographer or director to succeed in immersive storytelling. There are no more “shots” in the traditional sense that we’re used to; there’s only the creation of an experience. Lighting, rigging and crews are all visible in the 360-degree space, so for VR production, many different solutions to those issues are being experimented with, from green screen and cable cams to wire and rig removal, with more integrated theatrical lighting in cleverly designed sets or shooting on location in real places with abundant natural lighting.

The market for VR and 360 video storytelling seems to be thriving most in special venues, museums, theme parks and online for experiences that aren’t necessarily the best venues for traditional storytelling. Spending some time and a small amount of money on a consumer-level 360 video setup to hone your skills at immersive storytelling may be a wise investment if your business model and clients aren’t yet requesting VR/AR and 360 video. This medium is a great example of early adopters defining how the technology can best be utilized.

Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro magazine, Digital Photo Pro magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.

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