How 360 degree video becomes virtual reality: adding call to action points to VR environments

Web browsing is moving towards visual and virtual reality (VR) environments, but challenges for user engagement remain. Interactive 360° video can offer a new way for creating customized VR experiences for branding, entertainment, and education.

In 2015, both Google (YouTube) and Facebook announced support for 360° videos that let you look in any direction as if you were in the center of the action. Although we are essentially talking about video here, the change of viewer perspective from outside into the middle now makes us refer to 360° video as ‘virtual reality’. Captured with cameras like GoPro, Ricoh Theta, Kodak SP360, Giroptic or Sphericam 2, 360° video is quickly becoming a hot new media format that is expected to hit the market in 2016.

While immersive viewing experiences are a new and exciting perspective for media consumption, the key questions are:

  • how can we interact in this environment?
  • is VR affordable for common publishers and consumers?

Most immersive game environments, as well as more sophisticated VR platforms like Oculus Rift, allow the viewer to move around, engage in activities (such as ping pong) and even change the natural conditions of their perception (e.g. under water).

Creating an interactive 360 degree video, however, does not require massive data processing capacity or even hand/eye movement calculation. Instead, it can use a layer of functional web links to add navigation and content discovery to video-based VR environments.

For this demo we built a mobile app for iPhone that lets the user view and discover within a 360° video while using Google’s VR headset. Here is an overview of the setup:

  1. ThingLink VR app (free, request an invite) — a free 360° interactive video player for iPhone and iPad. It allows you to play and interact with tagged call to actions directly on your device.
  2. Google VR headset ($12.98) — Google Cardboard 3D Virtual Reality Glasses for Smartphone. Creates an immersive experience for viewing 360° video. Includes a button for changing the magnetic field that was programmed to open call to action tags.

Example annotations for enabling discovery

We annotated a 360° video called Wingsuit Base, created and uploaded to YouTube by an awesome base jumper Jokke Sommer from Norway.

In the beginning of our demo video, users can open a Google Maps tag that shows Styrn, a cool base jumping location in Norway. The second tag gives more information on Jokke Sommer, the base jumper who made the video. The third tag reveals a video interview that was created prior to the jump. These three examples are all tags that give the viewer an option to zoom into details and learn more.

In this demo we also explored spatial discovery by embedding a 360° image inside the 360° video. This gives the user a feeling of stopping to view a scene in the moment — in this case pausing to view the ski resort the wingsuiters are flying over. The experience can still be made more authentic by showing the embedded 360 image full screen so that the image temporarily overtakes the video play.

Why we think this is interesting

Interactive 360° video offers a marvelous platform for an immersive, context-driven browsing experience that can serve commercial or educational publishers alike.

Although 360° video creation is still in its infancy, it can well apply the same annotation technologies that are used for two dimensional video and images. Annotating 360° videos offers an inexpensive way to create customized interactive content for VR environments.

A quick evolution of VR player apps together with inexpensive VR headsets can make interactive 360 video soon available for masses.

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Virtual reality — what is it?

Virtual reality refers to a simulated environment that may or may not be similar to the world we physically live in and experience everyday. Essentially virtual means non-physical, that is, not made of atoms and stardust like us.

Virtual feels “real” because it is immersive. It appears as a three-dimensional image that surrounds us so that the viewer can perceive and feel being part of the environment the same way as in the non-virtual world, turning their head left, right, up and down.

The biggest difference between virtual and non-virtual lies in the way we can interact with what we perceive. In virtual reality, the laws of mass, speed or gravity do not apply, and time or location do not limit movement.

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