Anyone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s might remember Choose Your Own Adventure books that let you choose how the story progressed. More recently, artists like Pharrell, Arcade Fire and Bob Dylan delivered the equivalent in music.
Now, 360-degree video is the “choose your own adventure” of our day. 360-degree video is taking the Internet by storm, providing users an unparalleled and seemingly uninhibited look at a fully realized computer-generated Star Wars planet, the Saturday Night Live set, a LeBron James workout and more. Industry titans like Google and Facebook are visibly embracing the format.
However, amid the novelty, the format has some glaring shortcomings. And while this format serves as a good appetizer for the fast-approaching VR era, I’m inclined to say 360-degree video’s moment in the sun won’t last much longer. Here’s why:
1. The quality leaves much to be desired
Panoramic photography was originally developed so we could see as much of a landscape as possible with clarity. 360-degree video gives us an infinite panorama, but the tradeoff is that we have to view everything in fish-eye, with details on the edge of the screen appearing warped and blurry. The impact on the quality of image renders the exercise and result meaningless.
Admittedly, the advancement in seamless video stitching between a multi-camera setup is quite impressive; for most 360-degree video, you genuinely can’t tell where one camera’s image begins and another’s ends. But this doesn’t mean the end result is pretty to look at.
2. The average consumer is priced out
When it comes to 360-degree video, this is a game the recreational photographer and average mobile user won’t get to play. A camera rig can easily cost $500 alone, not including the thousands of dollars required for the actual cameras.
If the latest trend isn’t something you can create using the smartphone camera in your pocket – or an app – it’s simply not going to attract the 2 billion-plus smartphone users in the world.
3. It’s taxing on devices
Consider all the data that exists within a 360-degree video file. For every minute you spend watching, you are only ever seeing a fraction of the video at one time. Every piece of video content you aren’t seeing is wasting space and sucking up bandwidth. Unless you only ever watch 360-degree video using Wi-Fi, you are going to be stuck explaining why you used your entire family’s shared data plan in a single week. Even on most desktops, average consumers don’t have the RAM or Internet speed to view a 360-degree video without frequent pausing and buffering – Google’s Anjali Wheeler, who is project lead for YouTube’s 360-degree and 3D video playback, has said 360-degree videos take up four to five times more bandwidth than normal YouTube videos.
Much more pared-down solutions – like Apple’s Live Photos or any number of GIF creation apps – offer dynamic creative mediums that bridge the gap between photo and video in ways that don’t put heavy bandwidth constraints on mobile users.
4. It asks too much of its audience
Instead of asking how we can provide the most immersive, dynamic visual experience on mobile possible, we should be asking if it meets the needs of mobile users. One of 360-degree video’s key selling points is that it’s a different experience each time you watch it — and that it’s different for each individual person. The catch is that your full attention, and a potentially significant chunk of time, is required to truly have that experience. People today are rarely watching video on their phone or computer without also doing some other activity simultaneously. Because you have to click and drag around the screen to see different views, 360-degree video puts the burden on the audience to interact with the content, and the charm wears off quickly.
5. It removes the artistry from filmmaking
Videos – whether they are ads, entertainment, or otherwise – are primarily about the filmmaker conveying a message and the audience responding. This requires nuanced skill on the part of the artist – the filmmaker – to frame action around the most compelling story possible, in order to evoke the emotional response they want from their audience. 360-degree video requires none of this, which is why the current use of the technology is quite shallow and boring. As one creator of 360-degree video said, “The way we shoot is we position the camera and leave.” To me, that strips filmmaking of the artistry that defines it as a medium. What’s gained in interactivity is lost in inspiration.
All this being said, 360-degree video is not totally off-track. Google Street View is an example of immersive tech that is doing VR right and is still around after eight years. Why? Like 360-degree video, it allows users to look around at real environments, but unlike 360-degree video, it lets users control their vantage point. This is possible because Street View stitches images together instead of video. Because video is inherently linear, the limitations of shooting from a single position prevent a mobile vantage point, except in computer-generated environments. This is why Oculus is set to be a huge player in the video game industry: When it comes to spending their time consuming VR content, users want to be able to move within space, not simply look around.
Despite the backing of Google and Facebook, it’s clear that 360-degree video is an experiment in content that isn’t yet meaningful for the end user. The ability to see around an environment is truly a remarkable experience, but this technology has yet to find the delivery mechanism that resonates with a mass audience.
Ultimately, 360-degree video in its current iteration won’t last simply because we don’t need it. “Choose your own adventure” has its place, but it’s not here — it’s in children’s books.
Radu B. Rusu is CEO and cofounder of Fyusion. He has 10 years of experience in the 3D data processing field and, prior to Fyusion, was a visiting lecturer at Stanford University and a research scientist at Willow Garage, where he created the Point Cloud Library (PCL) project. During his Ph.D. at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen in Germany (TUM), Radu was affiliated with the CoTeSys (Cognition for Technical Systems) excellence cluster at TUM, the Artificial Intelligence Center at the Stanford Research Institute as an International Fellow Researcher, and Willow Garage, working on 3D semantic mapping techniques for mobile robots. Over the past years, he has coauthored over 70 peer-reviewed scientific publications, including 2 books. He won the Open Source Software (OSS) World Challenge in 2011 with PCL.
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