Spheres of progress

We are three years, perhaps 5, or one technological generation, before 360° film, with or without VR headsets, is just “normal", alongside Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, text messaging and everything else that seemed like an odd idea at the time. It’s hard to remember the early days when these were merely toys or amusements, that left many puzzled as to what their purpose was. Picture yourself having conversations on the lines of “why would you send a text message when you can just call?” It happened. Now, the question seems odd and SMS the norm.

Today, these are day-to-day activities that are embraced both by public and professional users alike. Who would have believed this could happen, back on day one of each technologies respective release? Even the ephemeral-by-design medium of Snapchat is on the radar of marketing professionals wishing to capture the attention of consumers (typically) fitting a younger demographic.

360° is already here of course, and has been at our fingertips since YouTube accommodated the viewing format back in March 2015. Notably, allowing the videos to be viewed on both desktop platforms and on Android-enabled mobile devices too. Facebook was not far behind (September 2015) - and neither were companies seeking to exploit the medium’s potential, either by commissioning videos or facilitating their production - whether to advance the medium itself or just to cash in on something new and “cool”.

The latter is arguably one of the most powerful driving forces in business, sales and marketing/advertising. If you have “cool” then you have a market willing to pay above and beyond reason itself. You also have buyers willing to do strange things for you: to passionately evangelise over your brand or wait outside your shop all night to be the first ones to buy new products, and usually to rapturous applause.

Hitting the mobile market early displayed shrewd foresight on Google/Android’s part; going “big” from the off. The smartphone format and 360 video are a natural fit of course, and arguably more so than a similar pairing with a desktop platform. For a start; the tactile nature of a smartphone (control via touchscreen) connects the user directly to the principal aspect of 360: the operator- controlled viewpoint, rotating around the X and Y axes. We can then simply “look around” by using our finger, rather than a mouse. We are connected, intuitively, which means that the majority of people can do it.

Smartphones, as you likely know, also come with other sensors as standard, in the case of 360 video this allows “tilt” and direction tracking to be assigned to viewing angle’s, ramping up the interactivity even more. If you wish to look around, then you simply do just that; using your mobile as the window onto the world that you are viewing. Now those extra sensors have a purpose, other than for spirit level and compass apps. There’s also an extra trick that smartphones can perform, one that radically transforms the experience further: that’s VR.

Yes, with the help of the Google Cardboard viewer/holder; your mobile becomes a VR headset (with a question mark over immersive 3D sound) for a negligible extra cost. This allows stereoscopic 360 (as opposed to standard, monoscopic) to be viewed on your phone.

It’s almost as if smartphones have been waiting for 360 video all along. So much so in fact that we may ask why 360 isn’t more popular -even ubiquitous- right now?

The answer is of course that it requires a dedicated 3D camera to create your own content. Once every user can get their hands on one, then “it” will explode, but for now a Nokia Ozo will cost you $60,000, a GoPro Odyssey: $15,000, and even consumer models that connect to a smartphone may cost several hundred dollars, as much as the phone itself. These are for cameras that record a full “sphere” of footage incidentally, allowing 360° of rotation on both the X and Y axes when viewed. The cheapest option at the moment appears to be the

Elephone Elecam 360 which offers a sphere of footage processed from its front and rear cameras for around $150. The results are good for the price, but rely upon 5 megapixel sensors, so have limitations. All in all, that’s quite an incredible price range, as addressed by a recent 360 camera feature on CNET - “The simple explanation for the vast difference in price is quality: the cheaper the camera, the lower the resolution. But there's more to it than that. Only the cameras at the high end of the price spectrum, like the Ozo, are capable of shooting stereoscopic video for VR.”

This puts the full potential of the medium out of the price range of most casual users, for now at least. New developments are happening all the time, however. With this in mind, all eyes will be on the NeoEye; ostensibly the world’s smallest 3D sphere camera for Android set to be released (along with its spec) before Christmas 2016, and retailing below £140 ($200 approx). That’s the next best thing to smartphones being sold with incorporated spherical 3D cameras as standard, though that’ll come.

Photo by othree