Saturday, March 25, 2017

Two Views and Reviews: Spherical (360) Video

360 video (also known as spherical video) is an admittedly niche area of the camera market. The technology is advanced enough to hold your attention as a novelty, but it lags traditional video by such a wide margin that it also remains a novelty. It is most definitely not the future of consuming video, and in many ways seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

Why? The simplest explanation is "our brains don't work that way." 360 cameras record everything in all directions, but the basic tenant of communication is that our brains focus on one particular subject at one time. Your eyes subconsciously scan a wide field of view but your brain assembles one sole point of focus in your vision as. Likewise, your ears hear a wide spectrum of frequencies, but your brain selectively picks out what you want to hear specifically.  This is why you can carry on a conversation with one person in a crowded room even though your ears are picking up the simultaneous speech from everyone around you.

Naturally, 360 doesn't work for storytellers, educators and communicators. These people require you to focus on one point in space; as most photographers and videographers instinctively know, it is not just what is in the shot, but what is left out of the shot that makes the picture. Derek Muller of Veritasium fame explains:

Note that as an educator, Dr. Muller's point is that having a new technology or new way to consume content does not necessarily lead to more content being consumed. Your own physics teacher may have filled up multiple chalkboards (whiteboards?) with equations, but his laser pointer is focused on only one set on one board.

Martin from YouTube channel TechAltar is a bit more charitable about the uses of 360 video. These devices work much better from the point of view of immersion rather than story telling, and work best for quick snaps viewed on mobile devices.

The following two videos illustrate the differences. The first is from Kelly Blue Book with an immersive "story-less" video of a drive in a Lamborghini. The comments and feedback are quite positive.

The  converse is true of the following Consumer Reports review, which is a highly structured format designed to convey a fair degree of information to the viewer. Theoretically it is nice to have an immersive view of the car being discussed, but you ultimately focus on what the presenter is saying rather than exploring your surroundings. If you are actually doing the latter, then your brain tends to turn off the former. The comment section is also quite telling about how successful 360 is for this type of video.

So yes, it is cool and there is a niche for it, even now with the early state of its technology, but improving the resolution isn't going to be the driving factor for greater adoption of 360 video. That would come from getting better at figuring what works and what doesn't work for the format itself.