I was tempted to have that simple “No” be the entire blog post, but I think it’s important to understand the reasons behind it.
First off, let me say that 360 video is awesome. In spite of all the limitations I’ve discussed elsewhere, 360 is a very powerful medium and I’ve seen some truly compelling content that has affected me on a deep, emotional level.
However, I think that calling it “VR” is doing a disservice to both VR and 360 video, and that 360 video will suffer from the comparison.
I’ve given countless VR demos to a wide variety of people over a long period of time. Depending on what hardware I’m using, I’ll start them off with something like The Lab (on the HTC Vive) or First Contact (on the Oculus Rift). One of the things people seem to love the most is photogrammetry — reconstructions of the real world from a large number of photos. There are some excellent examples of this in The Lab, for example, including the first thing people see there which is “Vesper’s Peak”.
People will put on the headset and immediately go “wow!” — they look at the mountain, and it’s much sharper and clearer and more realistic than they expected it to be. Then I tell them to turn their head and look around, and I get a second “wow!”. Then I tell them to walk around, then crouch down and look closely at the ground, and I get a third “wow!”. Then the robot dog comes along and I tell them to reach out and pet it, and throw a stick for it to fetch, and they’re absolutely enthralled.
Then I’ll show them some 360 video. The first thing they do is ask me how to adjust the focus. I show them, but I know that it’s not going to do any good. The problem is not with the focus, the problem is with the resolution of the video. Most content creators are still shooting and editing at 4K resolution, which of course is way too low for VR. The person trying the demo also notices the stitching lines, and the issues at the zenith and nadir, and the fact that the image is flat (or, if it’s stereoscopic, that it’s not stereoscopic when they look up or down or tilt their head). And they can’t move around. And there’s nothing they can interact with. After a minute or less, they ask to go back to the previous demo so they can play with the dog some more.
And that’s why it’s important to distinguish 360 video from VR. Aside from the fact that they’re both viewed through a headset, they’re completely different. Keeping them separate provides a way of setting peoples’ expectations of what each medium is capable of.
So what are the strengths of 360 video? The most important thing it offers is that it’s directly captured from the real world. It’s not CGI, it’s not heavily post-processed, it’s not the result of clever edits and special effects… it’s the real thing, shot exactly as if you were there. That’s why it’s been such a perfect fit for documentaries, where the simple reality of what you’re seeing is much more important than the visual quality. It’s also great for capturing personal experiences, whether it’s a first-person view of a sporting event, or a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion, or an intimate encounter, or traveling to some faraway place. Those are the sorts of things that 360 video will always do better than VR, and those things all have real value.
Calling 360 video “VR” is not only misleading, it hurts both media. People whose only exposure to “VR” is 360 video won’t get to see the full potential of the medium, which hurts the VR industry. And people who have seen actual VR will start to look at 360 video as an inferior alternative, the “cheap” kind of VR that’s never as sharp and crisp and interactive as the real thing.
By giving 360 video its own identity, distinct from VR, we can make it a first-class citizen in the world of immersive media. People will learn to recognize its particular strengths and weaknesses, rather than see it as the poor cousin of actual VR.