We need to talk about 360 video

Kate RichardsonVirtual reality is becoming a reality for consumers, but brands shouldn’t rush into it too soon argues Kate Richardson.

For years, virtual reality has been the domain of the gamers and the geeks. Something we associate with Spocky looking headsets, darkened living rooms littered with cans of V, and far away tech trade shows.

However with mainstream moves in techware and software, and the emergence of 360 degree video as a quasi, VR experience, immersive experiences are set to become a more familiar part of the entertainment and branded content landscape.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard

Newly crowned Cannes winner Google Cardboard is a kind of lo-fi DIY homekit that turns any smartphone into a VR style device. For about $200, the Samsung Gear VR headset will transform your Samsung Galaxy Note4 phone. And after much fanfare, industry stalwart Oculus Rift recently launched its consumer headset, but it’s fair to say the Rift is still firmly in the gaming camp. At least for now.

In March, YouTube announced its 360 channel, enabling users to both upload and watch 360 degree video. With nearly 1.5 million channel views and a watch list comprising mainly of action sports and experiments, it’s early days for both creators and audiences (particularly as the functionality has only just become available through the YouTube app on iOS). However with Facebook expected to introduce a native ‘spherical video’ offering later this year, the space is set to hot up.

The challenge ahead is for content to keep pace with the evolution in the technology. Right now, there is not a whole lot to watch.

And there’s a good reason for that. Firstly, 360 video production is a technically complex exercise that places entirely different demands on creators. A specific technical rig and camera set up are required to enable the capture of live action in 360 degrees. Once filming is complete, you need post production software and a savvy post-team to stitch together the footage and deliver the fully immersive experience.

This is in part why 360 video has typically been the domain of innovators like VR filmmaker Chris Milk, and specialist production companies well placed to deliver technical expertise and equipment.

However the launch of Google Jump last month, is both a small first step in the democratisation of the technology, and a signal that 360 video is here to stay, and set to go beyond the fringes of the mainstream.  In partnership with GoPro, Google has developed a 360 rig with pre set camera positions that are synced with the Jump Assembler, its software that turns 16 pieces of video into stereoscopic 360 degree content. In conjunction with its YouTube 360 platform, Jump will make the medium more accessible for aspiring VR filmmakers.

That said, having access to the technology only gets you part of the way. You also need to grasp the nature of storytelling in what is a completely different medium with a unique set of constraints and opportunities.

If you want to give someone a 360 view of the racetrack, then your primary creative challenge is technology related. But if you want to create a semblance of narrative, or construct a highly engineered visual experience this is something different altogether. We have been working in this space over the last few months and while it is absolutely thrilling, we’ve had to completely rethink our approach to designing a narrative and the nature of visual experience.

The whole piece has to be highly choreographed, recognising that the user charts their own path through the video. This also means you need to allow for a number of different action based, visual scenarios.

In our mind, to create a brilliant 360 video you need to create a visually arresting experience with amazing sound design, both of which enable you to gently pull the user through the experience, as well as push them in different directions. Layer this with elements of surprise, narrative points and storytelling devices, and it becomes compelling.

It’s early days for brands investing in 360 with Red Bull and Samsung leading a very small pack. This will change as creators, platforms and audiences catch up to the technology.

In a world of never ending distractions, brands that are willing to innovate, and create high value, world class immersive content will find they can surprise, delight and envelop consumers in an amazing, visual experience, in an uninterrupted way. That said, the possibilities of the medium stretch far beyond entertainment, with significant potential for virtual educational applications.

Whatever the goal, like all good content marketing, brands will need to resist the rush to produce 360 content just because it’s new and shiny, and instead define a clear purpose for the entry into the medium, as part of a distinct strategy. Otherwise it threatens to be an expensive and ugly mistake. They’ll need to recognise that 360 video demands a completely different attitude to filmmaking, and a genuine commitment to experimentation.

As Wired noted in an article about VR earlier this year: “There has been a lot of talk lately about VR filmmaking, and the possibilities are incredible. Animated films, documentaries, and live-action experiences could be revolutionised by 360-degree environments and a choose-your-own-adventure storytelling platform. The problem is, no one knows how to do it.”

  • Kate Richardson is head of strategy and agency director at content marketing agency Red Engine

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