The pioneering spirit

 Pioneering spirit title image

You have to admire those early adopters, prepared to accept the awkwardness of emerging methodologies, in order to be a part of something new, exciting and, hopefully, creative too. Looking back, the ignominies they willingly suffered at the time will seem ridiculous, but to be forging ahead through new land has a vitality of it’s own that those content to meander along well-worn paths will never know.

Is it possible that we pulled apart virtual nests of flattened geometric meshes back in the late 1990’s, spreading pieces out in 3D paint software as if preparing sectioned animal skins; all to produce texture maps for CG models? Now the process is invisible, edging closer to Sir Arthur C. Clarke’ promise of an advanced technology appearing magical.

We’re at a similar point within the logistics of 360゜video. Outwardly rational individuals will indeed spend $500 dollars on a geometric plastic holder for six $400 cameras, and then process the separate streams into one via some spartan $750 dollar software, just for the creative thrill of doing “it”. Those bulging, electro-mechanical insect-eyes are destined to become vintage sci-fi relics after a few short years though, in the same way that we regard tripod-mounted box cameras of the early 20th Century. For now, these (the 360 rigs) give the best semi-pro results after the operator has clunked though the multi-limbed process of assembly and production. The above configuration is not even the apex of quality or expense; there are sphere’s bristling with eyes available for approximately $50,000. That’s more than ten times the price of the assembly mentioned above. Suddenly it doesn’t appear so ‘Heath Robinson’ after all.

A hint of the mid-future is already here; you can see it if you glance in the opposite direction; away from the boastfully expensive pro arena. Peer down-market to the, relatively, cheap consumer models with one front and one rear fisheye lenses, auto stitching (assembling the separate views) and instant do-it-all software support. Here you only have to press a handful of buttons to, essentially ,say “go” to a few processes, and out drops a finished 360 video. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. The technology here is almost invisible, almost magical and almost ‘there’, though there are still obstacles.

The inherent restrictions on producing and experiencing 360 visuals, particularly with access to lower end equipment, have been noted as a limiting factor, possibly even a terminal one; to take the viewpoint expressed on Gadgets360 -

“360-video is best experienced with a VR headset, which, sadly, cuts out the social element as it isolates you from everyone else in the room. You could watch the same video on a tablet or you PC with a compatible player but then you need to keep panning around with either your finger or your mouse to see what's happening in the other frame. It's pretty neat the first couple of times you try this out with some demo videos, but how long can you keep doing it? After a while the novelty will wear off.” Perhaps a more realistic outlook would be that the medium will find a niche, as did 3D cinema, and exist happily therein.

Is this ridiculous? Well, 15 years ago mobile phone cameras were expensive, low-quality toys. It’s nearly 2017, they now shoot HD video and some creative types have even made professionally released films with them. The pro market will no doubt sneer at the blatantly non-cinematic resolutions and the unashamedly holiday snap functionality of downmarket 360, but they are looking at the child that will ultimately grow up to dethrone them. It’s happened before. In the late 1990’s the windows based PC platform, once good for spreadsheets, word processing and some 2D games, walked up in broad daylight and felled the titanic Silicon Graphics Inc. over dominance in film industry CG.    

Who would have seen that coming ten, or even five years prior, and to the company whose product line had facilitated the production of Jurassic Park less than a decade earlier?