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Stop the Skepticism: VR Video Makes a Believer Out of Anyone

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Eight years ago, my father, a historian, was working on the second draft of his biography of an escaped slave. As he was responding to his editor’s directive to add more narrative drama to the book, I sent him a copy of David Liss’s historical novel The Whiskey Rebels.

When he called to thank me for the book, I told him, “Read the first two pages. By the third paragraph, you’ll know exactly how it smelled along the Philadelphia waterfront in 1792. Your book begins a few blocks away, 60 years later. What did it smell like then?”

“Flower gardens and horse manure,” he said.

“I think you’ll grab your readers a lot sooner if they know that,” I replied.

Streaming video—compared to the written word—better conveys what it smells like where the action is happening, since we can always fall back on visuals and audio. But as the technology to deliver increasingly sophisticated and immersive live-streamed experiences becomes more accessible to producers working at different budget levels and scales, expectations change.

Catching a live event as it happens online has evolved from being marginally better than watching courtroom sketches on the 6 o’clock news to the next-best thing to being there to a crafted experience that offers elements that those experiencing the event onsite often don’t get, such as live interactions with others in the online audience. These interactions enhance engagement, and can go a long way to compensate for a viewing experience that, however enriched by the use of multiple camera feeds, is both limited and restricted by the switches and choices the crew makes onsite. The advent of 360-degree virtual reality streaming and on-demand online video—discussed in Jan Ozer’s production how-to in this issue, as well as Mark Alamares’s cover story in the November issue—brings a new dimension to the remote viewing experience that won’t be appropriate to all types of streams (as Ozer notes in his tutorial) but suggests enticing possibilities for others.

Of course, virtual reality presents unique challenges on the production end, and given its traditional association with dedicated, cumbersome headgear, might seem complicated and inconvenient to deliver as well. And thus it might seem incompatible with one of live and on-demand online video’s greatest selling points to date: the ability for action happening just about anywhere you aren’t to reach you exactly where you are, on devices that accompany you more or less wherever you go.

Recently I had my first impromptu, casual experience with virtual reality online video. It practically snuck up on me as I was checking Facebook on a two-block walk back to my car. In this case, the content was nothing to write a column about—a videographer friend testing the low-light capability his Ricoh Theta 360 camera as he and his daughter ambled through the food court of a South Carolina mall. But no sooner had I clicked on the player than I was scanning the mall’s full range of dining options, and noting scuff marks on the tiled floor and smudges on the skylight. I could just about smell the eggrolls.

I got the full 360-degree experience using nothing but the touchscreen of my Android smartphone. Even more recently, I read that the next phone likely to land in my pocket when my current service contract runs out—the Samsung Galaxy S7—pairs with a compact VR-capture device called Gear 360 and boasts built-in 360-degree video editing capability. By the time I’m using that phone, Facebook 360 and YouTube 360 will most likely be as familiar as Facebook and YouTube.

When I first heard about VR streaming and online video, I was skeptical, convinced that the inherent obstacles to a VR experience that comes to you—like everything else in online video—were too unwieldy to make it viable. But now that 360-degree VR has found me, I find myself doing a 180.

This article appears in the April/May 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Crossing the 360."

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