VR and 360 video: what are they good for?

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There’s plenty of appetite among media types for experimenting with VR and 360 video. But building that appetite in a mass audience is another matter.

VR typically creates a digital world through which the viewer can move and perhaps interact while 360 video is simply video footage recorded in all directions.

360 video is simpler than VR in almost all respects: it’s easier to make and edit, on simpler, cheaper kit, and can be viewed on devices that people are more likely to already have, rather than the powerful computers and dedicated headsets needed for full VR.

For that reason, 360 is often talked about as a ‘gateway’ to VR. The BBC’s Zillah Watson’s has completed a report for the Reuters Institute on the use of VR in news organisations. A panel with other media providers at the BBC to launch the report discussed the ‘gateway’ concept in relation to VR. (The word ‘drug’ was never mentioned but hung heavily in the air.)

As to whether 360 video really is a gateway to VR, Zillah admitted that “we don’t really know”. But she said we do know that 360 production is a gateway to VR production. It’s a kind of entry level activity for individuals or organisations wanting to learn about these new technologies.

From left: Zillah Watson, BBC; Anna Bateson, The Guardian; Kay Meseberg, ARTE; Nic Newman, Reuters Institute (chair).

Alongside Zillah was Anna Bateson, vice-president of platforms and partnerships at the Guardian. On the question of enticing an audience through the gateway to VR, Anna warned that one disappointing experience can lose you potential fans: you can “kill the whole thing” with bad content. So the Guardian’s policy is to make less, but make it the best possible quality.

What does that great experience consist of? Kay Meseberg, Head of VR at the French-German network ARTE, took a historical perspective: when people first went to the cinema, he said, that was a kind of virtual reality for them. “In five years, we’ll be talking about immersive content with its roots in cinema but nobody yet knows what it’ll look like.”

In the short history of VR and 360, ideas about what works have already evolved. There was a theory that 360 video was uniquely able to evoke empathy: you’d feel you were sharing experiences because the medium is so immersive. An influential report from a migrant camp helped promote this idea. Zillah says empathy is now seen as just one use: “there’s so much more that you can do – VR can also bring joy and surprise people. We’re seeing a far greater range of content than we saw a couple of years ago.”

When it comes to the use of 360 video by news organisations, a more practical matter is being debated: the role of the presenter. As Zillah explains, a 360 video report is very different from conventional TV news coverage:

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Zillah Watson

So what kind of subject lends itself to VR or 360 treatment? The pithiest answer Zillah heard in researching her report came from Marc Jungnickel of Bild: “be them or be there”. If VR isn’t going to transport you somewhere or put you in someone’s shoes, then don’t bother.

But there are no rules and few experts in this field so Zillah encourages everyone to roll up their sleeves and get involved:

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