The movie industry has been around for over 100 years, but the cinematic experience hasn’t changed much: Basically, you watch the action happening on a screen in front of you. This is true from the earliest silent movie theatres to the latest iPad tablet apps and OTT streaming to Smart TVs. 3D movies give some depth to the experience, and large screens such as IMAX can make it more immersive, but the core experience of watching a movie is the same. Over the years, some attempts to enhance the experience have been made, for example scratch-and-smell Odorama cards, or 4D movies where some action in the theatre is synchronized to events on screen, but these have not gained wide acceptance in the market.
Now, imagine a movie that is all around you. You are in the middle of all the action, you can look to the right, to the left, behind you and even upwards; and see what’s happening all around. This is the experience enabled by a new type of media: 360-degree videos. Somewhat similar to Virtual Reality (VR), 360-degree movies are best watched with a VR headset such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Valve. But in contrast to VR, the content of 360-degree videos is not computer-generated graphics, but real-world content, captured by a set of cameras or a special spherical camera.
March 2015 marked an important milestone for this emerging segment: YouTube started supporting 360-degree videos in the Google Chrome browser, and in the YouTube Android app (iOS support followed a few weeks later). This opened new opportunities for content creators to showcase their surround video storytelling capabilities. Recently, YouTube announced support for 360-degree video ads, and 3D support for these videos is expected later this year. In this post, I will show you how 360-degree videos are captured, and what are the challenges in creating and delivering them to viewers.
Capture The World
The most common way to capture 360-degree videos today is using a rig that holds several GoPro video cameras, each one of them positioned at a different angle, which together capture a spherical field of view around them. Examples of such rigs include the Freedom360 which holds 6 GoPro cameras, and the Google Jump that holds 16 GoPro cameras and captures 3D 360-degree video. These rigs and the required GoPro cameras can easily cost a few thousands dollars, at the same time they produce high-quality video and are available today.
If you are looking for a less expensive solution, and much more lightweight, you can use the Ricoh Theta M15 or the Kodak SP360 spherical cameras, which are available for around $200-$300. And just around the corner are the next generation of these cameras, such as the 360Fly, Giroptic, Bubl and SpheriCam, which are being funded on Kickstarter. These cameras cost between $300 and $1000, and produce higher quality videos than the current generation single-camera solutions. Last week Nokia made a surprise comeback to the consumer electronic scene, with its announcement of the OZO professional 360-degree video camera, expected in Q4 2015.
If you’re using a rig of cameras, you also need to go through the extra step of “stitching” the separate videos from each camera into a single 360-degree video file. There are two major brands for stitching software: Videostitch, and AutoPano Video by Kolor (which was acquired by GoPro). After stitching your movies, they are ready for upload to YouTube.
See All Around
For viewing 360-degree content, the most popular apps are those which support YouTube content: Currently the Google Chrome browser, and YouTube apps on iOS and Android. When viewing on Chrome, you can pan in all directions using your mouse, or use click on the on-screen navigation bar. In the YouTube apps, navigation is more natural: You simply move your device around to pan in different directions. When you do this, make sure you are either standing up or sitting on a swivel chair, otherwise when you reach certain angles you can easily strain your neck…
Kolor also makes the Kolor Eyes free software for PC, Mac, iOS and Android that lets you view 360-degree videos. With the Kolor Eyes software, you can even zoom in and out and of the video, and try alternative projections of the video such as Mirror Ball, Little Planet and FishEye.
But without a doubt, the best way to view 360-degree videos is with a VR headset, or the cheaper smartphone holder alternatives such as the Google Cardboard. When using these devices, you simply move your head in the direction that you want to view, and since the screen (or screens) fill your whole field of view, you get a truly immersive experience.
The Delivery Challenge
While 360-degree videos create a new and exciting experience for viewing, delivering them over today’s network infrastructure can be quite challenging. The reason is that the total resolution of the video is 4 to 9 times higher than the viewport resolution (the part of the video that you actually see on your screen at any given time). So if you want the video viewport to be in full HD resolution (1920×1080) on your screen, your 360-degree video should be at least 4K resolution (3840×2160). The challenges in delivering 4K video over the Internet are well known, but for 360-degree videos there is an additional challenge: 4K video is mostly viewed on 4K TVs, which support the new HEVC codec, providing better bandwidth efficiency than the current H.264 (AVC) codec. But 360-degree videos are viewed on the current generation of PCs and mobile devices, which don’t support HEVC yet. This results in very high bitrates, or more often, very low quality for the resulting video. Luckily, we have the technology to reduce the bitrate of H.264 video streams by up to 50% without compromising their quality, so we welcome 360-degree videos and are up to the challenge of delivering them in high quality and low bitrate to viewers everywhere.
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