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360 video is tricky even when recording fabulous musicians
360 video is tricky even when recording fabulous musicians

A lot of people feel disappointed with their first 360 experience. That’s probably because most of them associate “three-sixty” with video. However, 360 photos prove to be a more satisfying format for those looking for an immersive experience online.

Social media and camera manufacturers seem to be the culprit — they have rushed into offering 360 video features, without first proposing solid quality 360 photo features. Their choice was probably dominated by trends and the success of certain Youtubers, regardless of output quality, bandwidth or story telling. Even Facebook has symbolised this paradox in some way, allowing 360 video upload one year before photo upload.

I’ll try to sum up the reasons why I’m convinced that 360 video is worse-off than 360 photo at the moment.

1/ Poor quality — graphic cards are not ready

Most of 360 videos bring us back to the early 2010’s with their vintage pixels resolution. It’s a visual shock. The reason is simple: 360 pictures require a gigantic amount of pixels, on average 16x more than a flat picture. To display such images at a rate of 30fps, your computer must be a superhero. Most of GPUs (graphic cards) simply can’t keep up. To understand why, you can read the detailed explanation in the article “Why 360 video technical challenge is not solved yet?”, written by our fellow CTO.

Here is a simplified version: your graphic card needs to decompress a 16x large frame at a 30fps rate — a real challenge. To deal with this task, your hardware puts some limits on the quality of the 360 video as it simply can’t do better (for now).

This explains also why Facebook 360 and Youtube 360 stream low resolutions 360 videos, while they stream at the same time high resolution videos that reach the limits of your graphic processor.

On the contrary, 360 photos can be displayed in high definition. They are always compatible with your graphic card because the JPEG decompression happens on the CPU side with no resolution restriction.

2/ Poor quality — output files are huge

30fps are not only hard to run, they are also expensive to store. Servers farms across the world face a difficult situation in how to manage the incredible amount of flat pictures and videos we create everyday. Next to these, 360 videos are a nightmare, which is also another reason why Facebook and Youtube are putting limits on 360 videos quality.

And once again, you don’t need to solve that issue with 360 photos.

3/ Poor quality — bandwidth is limited

After reading the two first points, you’ve probably understood just how heavy 360 videos are. This is a problem not only for GPUs and servers, but also for your bandwidth. It requires the transmission of an enormous volume of information per unit of time. Your internet connection better be premium. (And this point once again illustrates why Facebook and Youtube offer only bad quality 360 videos).

4/ Poor compatibility with mobile devices

Have you already tried to watch a 360 video on your smartphone ? If so, you may have encountered a black screen. Our phones are actually no more than tiny computers doing their best to support this new, demanding format. Google has posted a list of video specifications that allow you to visualize content on your device. Safari still encounters several issues. That said, 360 photos are compatible with most of mobile devices.

5/ Bad storytelling

All of the technical issues mentioned above may be resolved in the coming years, but a structural question will remain one of the problems. This time it’s not about technology — it’s the storytelling.

360 video gives a lot more freedom to the viewer, but not the creator. If viewers can move freely within the frame at any moment, how is the producer supposed to point to a particular scene ? This is a big issue according to Derek Muller, a popular science Youtuber :

In my videos, I want to help direct your attention. I want to show you the things that I think you need to see in order to understand what I’m talking about. I don’t want you looking to the side or behind you. — DM, Why Spherical Video Is A Bad Idea

In the end, 360 videos can be a source of great frustration for the creator — he doesn’t know if the viewer will pay attention to the things he wants to highlight — and at the same time confusing for the viewer — trying to focus on the speaker but tempted to look away at any moment.

Facebook has tried to fix this issue by releasing new tools: Guide and Heatmap. These features help the viewer understand where they should look. But what’s the point of using 360 video if your point of view needs to be guided?

Obviously, 360 photos are not concerned by any storytelling issues. The viewers should only be curious and look wherever they want.

6/ You always miss something

Even if you are an extremely active viewer moving constantly within the frame, you will always have the annoying feeling of missing something. It is logical, because you do, actually, miss a lot of things. Considering the full perimeter of the shooting, the only way to watch the whole scene would be to play the video 4 times, in 4 different directions. What a crazy thing to do.

7/ Your brain gets saturated

Watching “flat” videos requires two senses: sight and hearing. The experience is relaxing because you don’t ask your brain for more. But 360 videos mess with this concept.

Spherical scenes need you to choose your point of view the whole time by moving your headset, tapping your screen or “clicking and dragging”. At first, it seems like an incredible feeling of freedom. After a few minutes, your movements become less intense. At the end, you just want the point of view to change automatically so you can rest your head or fingers.

8/ Cameras are expensive

We talked about the consequences of 360 video files on the internet, but what about the creation process? Good cameras are super expensive and most of cheap cameras are disappointing. Here is a good evaluation of cameras under 1.000€. Most of these hardwares have both video and photo functions. 360 photography always comes with better quality.

9/ Post-production is challenging

Once you have recorded your video, you will probably want to edit it. Here comes another issue if you are not a professional with substantial ressources: post-production. Your computer has to be powerful enough to support enormous files (which brings us back to our 1/ point about graphic cards). Considering the fact that most of our computers can’t handle flat 4K video editing so far, the post-production challenge shouldn’t be considered lightly.

10/ Side effects

We hear a lot about VR headsets side effects like nausea, but this uncomfortable feeling can also occur with 360 videos displayed on a screen. If the scene is moving too much and your point of view is constantly changing, your brain will be begging you to stop.

11/ Use cases are limited

Photos and videos are used in different circumstances, and the arrival of the 360 format doesn’t change anything about it. The media’s infatuation for telling stories with spherical videos is understandable, but that doesn’t in any way diminish the importance of photos, used to capture moments and places. At 360player, we remain convinced that there will be no competition between them.

Just one last thought — it’s true that videos offer more possibilities than photos. But this field of possibilities comes — inevitably — with more difficulties. That probably explains why we still have many more photos than videos on the camera roll of our smartphones.