VR vs. 360-degree video: Two perspectives

We consult two experts about what really constitutes Virtual Reality.

Virtual Reality is one of the most talked about tech topics around at the moment. Yet amongst the professional community there is some debate about what really constitutes VR. In order to get some perspective we consulted Dr Wendy Powell, reader in VR at the University of Portsmouth and senior member of the IEEE and Jim Malcolm, president of Ricoh Imaging Americas and an expert resource on 360-degree imaging to gain their feedback.

How separate is 360-degree video from VR?

Dr Wendy Powell:

Although both 360 photography /video and VR are attempting to give users a sense of “being there” (known as presence or immersion in the VR world), they are fundamentally different in the way they are made and experienced.

360 photography captures live action in a sequence of still images.  The images are taken in multiple directions at the same time, and then “stitched together” in special video software in order to give a seamless transition from one image to another. Imagine that they are lining the inside of a large sphere, and that the user sits in the centre of the sphere. You can look in any direction and see parts of the image, but you can’t change the viewpoint from the original image. You can’t move in and look behind an object to reveal something that was previously hidden, and you are constrained to whatever perspective the photographer or director chose when the footage was captured. Some 360 videos are filmed from several different cameras, and this can give the illusion of being able to move around, but the reality is that you are always constrained by the original camera placements.

In contrast, VR creates a digital environment and places a virtual camera into it. The camera acts as the user’s eyes. Most VR will have some way of tracking the movements of the user’s head, and this is used to adjust the position of the virtual camera. So, you can look around the scene in the same way that you can view a 360 video. But you are also free to move around anywhere you like in the virtual environment. You can go through doorways and into another room, look behind things, choose any viewpoint you want.

The second fundamental difference is the level of interaction. Apart from looking around, and perhaps changing from one camera view to another, there really isn’t much in the way of interaction with 360 photos or video. We have no real influence on the visual content.  In contrast, since VR experiences are digitally created, they can also be digitally altered “in real time”. So we can interact with the environment directly. In the same way that our actions in a computer game will alter what we see and hear, what we do in VR can alter the very environment that we are exploring.  I can open a closed door, turn on a tap, chase the dog away. The possibilities are endless, limited only by the imagination of the designers of the VR experience.

Jim Malcolm:

Surprisingly, 360-degree spherical video is not at all separate from a virtual reality (VR) experience. In fact, video creation is one of the single most important assets in the creation of any VR content that is not completely computer generated. It is true that video game production and some entertainment content will be created entirely by the computer, but for real-world VR experiences such as virtual vacations, virtual tourism, virtual flight, virtual education, virtual training and even the ability to virtually go “back in time” all of these rely 100% on recorded content to capture everything in the environment. A 360-degree video, whether viewed in a VR headset or manipulated on a 2-dimensional screen, is in and of itself one of the major building blocks of our VR future.

How much of stepping stone is it to VR?

Dr Wendy Powell:

I personally feel that 360 video isn’t so much a stepping stone to VR, as a separate medium. 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. 

Jim Malcolm:

Spherical 360-degree video is the foundation for all non-computer generated VR content and therefore it’s not so much a stepping stone into VR as it is a required building block to a truly immersive VR experience. Transporting a person from simply watching a 360-degree video to truly experiencing a virtual world requires additional technologies to make that experience feel “real”. That’s where developers of headsets can apply systems such as positional tracking for head movement, eye tracking to follow what the eyes are focused on, and even the additional tactile feedback for simulated touch and ultimately smell, as they all come together to define a truly virtual experience.     

Where is this heading in the short, medium and long-term?

Dr Wendy Powell:

Good 360 video or photography allows us to share an experience or location. For instance, I took some 360 photos at an old chapel in France, and when I got home my family could see them as I had seen them, looking around the whole chapel, getting a sense of the scale and layout. I’ve experienced amazing 360 videos which took me under the sea to swim in a world that I could never enter on my own. Experiencing an encounter with a whale in 360 video gives me a far greater sense of its enormity and power than a good documentary film ever could. Done well, this sort of experience adds a layer of richness to our vicarious experiences. The scene or narrative is predetermined by the producer, and all that remains is for us to look around and enjoy the content.

In contrast, VR is much more about the interactive experience. The designers need to entice the user to explore the virtual space, and to interact with it. There is often an expectation that we should be able to move around quite naturally inside the virtual world, and creating the hardware and software experience to support this is challenging. Tracking our hands to allow us to virtually touch things is now quite achievable – devices such as the Leap Motion can be mounted onto a VR headset and movements of the hands and fingers in the real world can be translated inside the digital world. Moving our bodies around is less simple. Tracking systems are generally still fairly large or expensive, and fraught with hazards such as bumping into objects in the real world. For the time being, we generally have to be content with a mixture of natural and mediated interaction, tracking our head movements to look around, but using devices like game controllers in order to fully interact.

In the longer term, we may see a convergence between the two types of immersive experience.  Many cameras now have the ability to record depth information alongside the colours of the pixels, and it is conceivable that it will eventually become the norm to explore our 360 photographs in three dimensions, rather than the current passive viewing.

Jim Malcolm:

In the short-term, we’ll see new definitions for VR emerge as diverse industries collaborate, discover and nurture the future of virtual reality. Currently, we’re focused on how to create content in a way that overcomes some of the early obstacles of wearing a headset such as feeling dizzy or even nauseous while wearing the device. However, as we learn how the human body tolerates the virtual experience, and we increase image quality, the industry must define new technologies within the current use to expedite adoption with gaming, entertainment and video viewing applications. The truly exciting applications for VR occur on a slightly longer 3-year horizon where it will become normal to train military and law enforcement under VR experiences. Doctors will complete some of their surgical residency in a VR classroom while consumers from all walks of life seamlessly create their own user-generated VR experiences to share with family and friends. Yet, the most thrilling advancement to me is the concept of the virtual time machine we’re developing to empower future generations to go back in time and know precisely what the past held from millions of individual perspectives.  

Is there anything else you want to share that doesn't get covered enough?

Dr Wendy Powell:

In our own research group, we are exploring the blending of the real and the virtual, making digital reconstructions of the space around us and overlaying digital objects into the same physical space.  It may not be too far in the future that you will be able to turn your living room into the bridge of a spaceship, with your comfy chair and coffee table being seamlessly transformed into the captains console while you battle the approaching alien invasion.

Jim Malcolm:

The idea of virtual reality is dependent upon making an experience as true to life as possible. Admittedly, there are many obstacles in the way of successfully growing VR beyond the practical applications found in gaming and entertainment. Nonetheless, innovative products such as the Ricoh Theta S camera ($350 USD) are exposing millions of consumers to the VR experience, thus driving explosive growth in User Generated Content (UGC). Social platforms such as Facebook and YouTube now allow UGC to tell an entirely new story in complete, 360-degree spherical narrative, defining the foundation for a future VR industry.     


Further reading:

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

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