VR 101: A guide to virtual reality and 360-degree video
Virtual reality is enjoying a growth spurt, with industry leaders from Facebook and Google to Nikon and Samsung working to make their mark with networks, headsets, and cameras. As VR advances and attracts the interest of photographers, videographers, and consumers, there's still confusion on what it is and how it will affect photography.
VR is computer-generated content that simulates a real-world or fantastical experience. It requires playback in a headset of some type, so visuals must be in 3-D in 360 degrees around the viewer, and the audio also has to be spatial (3-D sound). Until recently, computer-generated imagery was the only way to create VR content that was 3-D in 360 degrees, but new technology provides opportunities to capture the real world in 360 degrees.
Let's dive into some essential industry terms defined by three core categories: capture, assemble, and share.
What types of VR cameras are on the market, and what can they show?
360-degree cameras: Single-sensor cameras including devices like the Kodak Pixpro and 360Fly have joined the market and started the movement to capture and consume content beyond traditional photography and video. These devices typically have one camera with a very wide-angle lens. The camera captures video that's 360 degrees horizontally but only 235 to 240 degrees vertically, leaving a significant blind spot in the video.
Full-spherical cameras: Building off of 360-degree, single-sensor cameras, full-spherical cameras capture 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically. Why not 360 degrees vertically? The easiest way to answer that is to imagine yourself sitting in a swivel chair. From that position, you can turn in a full circle (360 degrees) to see everything around you. If you want to see what is above or below, you can look up 90 degrees and down 90 degrees. Therefore full-spherical cameras shoot 360x180 degrees using two or more cameras and stitching the multiple images or video together to form a full spherical image.
3-D 360-degree cameras: True VR immersion requires two full-spherical 3-D videos, one for each eye, that are offset by the width of the eyes. This method of capturing two offset videos provides depth perception when viewed in a VR headset. There are only a handful of cameras with this capability, including Nokia OZO, Jaunt and Facebook Surround 360. The Vuze camera is slated to come to market in early 2017.
If you're using any multi-camera system to capture video or stills, the next step is the process of stitching, which requires color balancing, alignment, and elimination of inevitable stitching errors. Although some 360-degree cameras stitch in camera or with a mobile app, high-quality 360-degree and 3-D 360-degree VR video requires a computer to stitch and assemble the final experience. In the coming months, look for simplified, one-button solutions to enter the market.
Once you’ve created a VR piece, there are three basic methods of playback.
2-D flat image: Once uploaded to services like YouTube, Facebook, and others, people can simply watch a video and drag the picture around using their mouse or by touch using a tablet. This basic playback is the most common today and is available to millions of consumers worldwide.
2-D in a headset: If the captured video is 2-D , it’s still possible to view it in products like the Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream. Video can be loaded onto a smartphone or social media stream and enjoyed via a headset. These videos may look a bit flat when viewed in a headset, but it’s easy to look around and explore the world.
3-D in a headset: The best VR experience comes from loading a 3-D 360-degree video into a headset. The headset projects two slightly offset images to form a 3-D stereographic experience that must be seen to appreciate. The emotional impact of this video format is incredible.
The process from capture to consumption of true-to-life VR takes a bit of work, but it's no longer limited to programmers and computer artists living in a CGI world.
Jim Malcolm is North America general manager for Humaneyes Technologies.