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The UX of 360° video

Over the last 12 months virtual reality (VR) has become increasingly accessible. A reduction in production and equipment costs has enabled VR to spread from the walls of Silicon Valley to the hands and heads of developers around the world.

Whilst probably still too costly for most hobby videographers, the technology is now at a stage where it is cheap and good enough to make VR a reality for brands looking to create more immersive content for customers.

Therefore you can expect to see a plethora of 360° video being produced over the coming months. Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift; the launch of Google Cardboard, Google’s flat-packed DIY VR headset; as well as YouTube’s announcement that the platform can now support 360° content, all suggest that 360° video could soon be a new component of brands’ marketing arsenals.

We’re anticipating an explosion of content, which will inevitably include a large amount of trash. So we got our hands on the kit to have a play and discover the dos and don’ts of producing this type of video and the things you need to consider from a user’s point of view.

What exactly is 360° video and how do you make it? #

In a nutshell it is a video recording, which allows the viewer to see all 360 degrees of the location that has been filmed. One way of producing this content is by attaching anywhere from 6 to 10 (depending on the desired video quality) GoPro cameras to a 3D printed mount that points each one in a different direction.

The combination of the GoPro’s small body and wide-angle lens make it ideal for shooting 360° video. The wide-angle and small form also mean that when mounted the combined footage equates to more than 360 degrees, creating an overlay, which is important when it comes to stitching the footage together. The most notable manufacturers are 360Heros and Freedom360 who provide video hosting on their sites and via their apps as well as a range of tutorials.

We discovered that it can get a bit complicated when using anywhere upwards of six individual cameras on one rig. There is nothing more annoying than discovering one of your cameras has run out of power so make sure all are fully charged. Unfortunately because they’re mounted to a 3D printed rig you’ll have to do each one individually.

Secondly, when you’re ready to record, all cameras must be started simultaneously. Remote controls are available but if you don’t have one you can record a short sharp noise to use as a cue to synchronise the videos afterwards – we found clapping works just fine. Thirdly, the footage needs to be downloaded individually from each camera, which is fairly time consuming.

How do I watch it? #

There are a number of ways of viewing content but the most immersive is via VR headsets such as: Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear or Google Cardboard. These devices ensure that your field of vision is fully engulfed by the virtual environment. Samsung Gear and Google cardboard both work by loading an app on your smartphone and then inserting it into, or attaching it to, the device.

However you don’t need a headset to be able to watch this content. 360Heros allows you to download and view footage on your smartphone via their app. Converse for example recently released Chucks 360°. The app allows you to select which device you’re using for viewing so that you have the right version of the film. Smart filmmakers won’t be tied to a particular device, but create versions for users of any popular device.

Done right 360 video has the potential to create immersive brand experiences but there are a few things to consider from a user perspective before you start cueing up your claps.

Create something with substance #

The large majority of content being produced is to showcase the technology. We’ve seen a lot of picturesque panoramic landscapes dubbed with chill-out music and cameras mounted on things moving at breakneck speed. With a camera setup that captures all directions, it becomes a lot easier to capture a moment in real life than to engineer a scripted experience. These examples are not without their charm but in order for 360° content to have any longevity, producers must think beyond cheap thrills.

The best way of deciding whether what you’re thinking of creating is relevant is by asking yourself, ‘what is the underlying need for this? Why would anyone be interested?’

One of the most interesting examples we’ve seen is the Converse Chuck 360° app. Part of a larger marketing campaign the app uses 360° video to immerse the viewer in the worlds and thoughts of four artists. The films are narrated by the featured artist who tells a brief story about their passion, experiences or creative process. The viewing experience is both immersive and intimate as the viewer is given fleeting access to a space and person that would have otherwise been unreachable.

Direct the user's attention #

Whilst 360° video sits under the VR umbrella, it is not strictly speaking a virtual reality as the content has been pre-recorded. Users have only limited freedom: they are free to change where they’re looking but are unable to control or explore their environment further. When it comes to navigation they are at the mercy of the director. Understanding this limitation is important when considering the positioning of the camera in relation to subjects or points of interest.

With a 360° view how might you attract the attention of a user who could be looking in completely the wrong direction? The current visual devices used in film would have to work hard to scale to 360 degrees. When it becomes impossible for filmmakers to frame their shots, can they rely on lighting, sound and focus to direct attention without losing the audience?

On the other hand, will 360° video be limited to settings where there is something interesting coming from all sides? The Chuck 360° content handles this issue well. The viewer’s gaze is directed by changes in the volume of the narration, which gets quieter as you veer away from the desired area of focus.

When high production value becomes an expectation, interesting challenges arise, such as camouflaging the sound equipment and hiding the crew. For the medium to grow, the production techniques of TV and film must be replicated in order to use them for similar narrative or marketing purposes.

Don’t break the illusion #

Your video is only as good as your stitch. Stitching software allows you to create a calibration file, or template as it is sometimes known, which configures how the videos will be stitched together.

There are two ways of doing this. One way involves using a pre-existing template whilst the other relies on you creating a new template, specific to that piece of footage. Both have their pros and cons and take a little getting used to but the most impressive results we’ve seen are from the video-specific template. However when this fails, it fails spectacularly.

Don’t look down. Looking down in 360° footage can seriously compromise the viewing illusion. Either you see: part of the rig like a tripod or camera operator, a rendered black space that obscures the rig, or an attempt to stretch the pixels in a way that masks the rig. The best results we’ve seen are with the third option - but this is the most time consuming.

With all of the visual considerations it can be easy to neglect the sound of 360° video but poor execution can have a detrimental effect on the overall viewing experience.

To create a truly authentic 360° experience like Chuck 360° the sound scape should reflect the changes in the user’s gaze, responding to their new position and the activity in their line of vision. Positional stereo sound is one way of creating a more authentic aural experience. Another option, if you have the budget, is binaural audio, more commonly known as 3D audio.

What next for 360° video? #

360° content presents brands with an exciting opportunity to create memorable, lasting and valuable experiences for the viewer. However, in order for the medium to maximise its potential it must be goal orientated and aligned with a broader commercial narrative. There will be a lot of ill-considered uninspiring content made but we’re also hoping to see innovative content creation from brands prepared to make the necessary investment.

The best content will be that which transports customers into a first-hand experience, which allows them to better understand a product or service. For example: an estate agent showing the viewer around a property; a hotelier taking you on a tour of a resort’s facilities; a camera in the dressing room before a cup-final; or behind the scenes access at a music festival.

The brands that will stand apart will be those who put the user first and harness the medium to serve their wants and needs rather than solely to generate PR.