VR vs. 360-degree video: When YouTube moves immersive to 'live'

As YouTube moves towards live 360-degree video, we look at what all this means in the context of VR

“Stop calling Google Cardboard’s 360-degree videos ‘VR’,” urged Will Smith in a piece of that title published in Wired, back in November. “It’s a decent first taste, but 360 video is as far from real VR as seeing the Grand Canyon through a Viewmaster is from standing at the edge of the Canyon’s South Rim,” he wrote.

Virtual Reality is probably one of the most talked about trends of 2016. All the big vendors are getting involved. Apple hired a 3D interface expert to boost its VR research in at the start of the year.  Samsung is very heavily invested, as are many others.

Yet there is some debate about what constitutes true Virtual Reality. The argument hinges on whether videos are filmed in 3D and whether video, as opposed to digital footage, can ever really constitute VR.

Jim Malcolm, president of Ricoh Imaging Americas believes “360-degree spherical video is not at all separate from a virtual reality (VR) experience”.

“A 360-degree video, whether viewed in a VR headset or manipulated on a two-dimensional screen, is in and of itself one of the major building blocks of our VR future,” he adds.

Dr Wendy Powell, reader in VR at the University of Portsmouth and senior member of the IEEE takes another view. “360 video isn’t so much a stepping stone to VR, as a separate medium,” she says. “It’s a bit like saying that a film is a stepping stone to a computer game. They are fundamentally different experiences, and I think that the best producers of this type of content recognise this.”

But whether 360 video constitutes VR or not, one way more immersive video can be taken to another level by going live. As Brendan Klinkenberg reported for Buzzfeed news at the beginning of February, YouTube is developing live 360-degree video capability in a bid to extend its “lead in virtual reality with live immersive broadcasts”. 

“Multiple sources familiar with the company’s plans confirmed YouTube has been meeting with 360-degree camera manufacturers about adding support for immersive live-streamed video broadcasts to its platform,” he wrote.

“The launch timeline remains unclear,” he added but, “this is its attempt to own the next big video format”.  It is obvious this side of the business is a big growth area for Google. Multiple news stories have covered how it plans to launch an updated version of Google Cardboard in plastic. While Mattel and various others have compatible versions ready to launch.

“YouTube has been supporting 360 video since last year and I would expect that the reports of them developing live streaming of 360 video are correct,” Anil Jain, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Media at Brightcove, a provider of online video, tells IDG Connect.

“Most media companies — along with YouTube — are continuously on the lookout for new and novel experiences they can provide that will differentiate them. 360 video, 360 live streaming and VR are all examples of this,” he adds.  

He believes the timing for all this will be dependent on a number of factors. Firstly, customer demand. And secondly, YouTube’s ability to find or develop a standardisation process in terms of formats.

“I believe the technology will be used to showcase an ‘exciting new capability’ and to allow publishers of all sorts to experiment and gauge consumer reaction,” he says.

“The most natural use cases for 360 live streaming are likely to be around live events such as music concerts and perhaps some sporting events,” he adds. “But, I could imagine the use in special situations where viewers are invited to ‘come along’ with someone wearing the 360 camera gear to tour interesting venues and locations.”

In the short term 360 video, even in a non-live setting, still has numerous challenges to overcome though. “Notably resolution,” says David Hayes, iOS Developer at Ordnance Survey. “This is limited by the resolution of available VR displays, and challenges with capturing 3D content.”

In the medium term Hayes thinks we will see more 360 content produced. “Indie and short film makers will produce 360 videos to be consumed on more VR hardware.” While in the long term he envisages a large, feature-length Hollywood film.

“We may in the future look back on non-360 images like we look back on black and white photos today,” he says.


Further reading:

VR vs. 360-degree video: Two perspectives

Internet TV 2026 report: The 13 things to know

Virtual Reality 2016: Hyped but needing a dose of calm

Beyond marketing & gaming: 6 professional uses for Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (part 1): Where we stand in 2015

Virtual Reality (part 2): Where is it heading?

An excited IDG Connect team plays with a Cardboard VR headset