Saving Lives and Winning Games: The Latest on 360 Video and Virtual Reality

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The buzz around virtual reality (VR) and 360 video started to pick up about a year ago, when YouTube and Facebook began supporting 360 (also known as spherical) videos.

In 2016, we’re seeing even more action in the sphere of 360 video. Between new cameras and audio rigs, compelling new 360 content, and initiatives from video platforms like Facebook and YouTube, it’s about time for an update on virtual reality and 360 video.

The year started off with a booming assortment of 360 recording equipment at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. New 360 cameras from GoPro and Sphericam created a buzz on the show floor, while companies like Arkamys and VisiSonics rounded out the VR experience with 3-dimensional sound recording equipment.

And as all this new equipment begins to hit the mainstream, the major video platforms are working to find new ways to deal with the additional challenges that 360 video presents.

As you might expect, spherical video results in much bigger files compared with 2D video. Facebook developed new processing and encoding techniques earlier this year that should help to make 360 more efficient on a variety of devices, while also eliminating some of the stretching and skewing that takes place.

In a nutshell, where 360 videos usually consist of a single image that is stretched and wrapped to accommodate different viewing angles, Facebook breaks that image into 30 smaller chunks, each representing a different perspective. Facebook’s platform then stitches those chunks back together, so that the viewer gets the big picture without any distortion.

Facebook is also improving the process for streaming through VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, working to make file sizes smaller while improving the experience. Because VR headsets require higher resolution than traditional flat screens, those files must be even bigger. To use less bandwidth and make for a more natural experience, Facebook streams the sections in the viewer’s line of sight in higher resolution, and streams sections on the periphery in lower resolution.

And lest you think that VR is all about entertainment, we’re already seeing some other applications that run much deeper. Last December, doctors in Miami used a $20 Google Cardboard headset to visualize MRIs from an infant with a rare heart deformity, making it possible to plan and perform a lifesaving operation despite a grim prognosis.

Sports teams are also finding VR to be a big asset to the standard training regimen. At least fourteen NFL and college football teams are already using a 360 video setup (provided by STRIVR Labs) to film practices using a 360 camera. Afterward, players can go right back on the field through an Oculus Rift headset, complete with realistic sound. This provides a more immersive experience than simply watching 2D video of the practice, allowing athletes to view and follow the action as they would from the field.

We’re still in the nascent stages of 360 content, but there’s no shortage of compelling use cases or interesting content. For example, you can take a look inside the new World Trade Center transit hub that opened this week in Manhattan:

[Note: These videos can only be viewed in 360 degrees using Chrome or Firefox, or by clicking through to YouTube on a mobile device]

Nature videos are even more engaging in 360, as you’ll see from this BBC Earth video of a kitebird feeding frenzy:

And of course, 360 video can make for some memorable advertising. Especially if you put the camera on a rollercoaster, as Universal Studios did:

Even in these early stages, 360 video is a fascinating sphere to follow. We expect to see big leaps in the video quality and amount of content available over the next several months, so stay tuned!