A lot of people don’t understand the difference between 360-degree video and virtual reality – and in some cases, the difference can be pretty subtle. It would be handy if hardware provided a line in the sand, but this isn’t the case – both kinds of experiences can be viewed in either VR headsets or flat displays.
As similar as these experiences can seem, there are some differences between the experiences that are worth understanding. Here, we’ll look at examples of VR and 360-degree videos, as well as some of the complicated environments in the space between.
What Is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality involves moving through a virtually (re)constructed environment. This environment can be built from the ground up using computer modeling to create a landscape that may or may not be similar to any physical location. These models seem to have volume and depth, as does the environment in which they are placed.
Because a VR environment is built of spatially constructed components, it can be moved through. It may contain objects and elements that the user can move, move around, or interact with. Most of the virtual worlds that you probably think of when you think of VR (VRChat, AltspaceVR, etc.) are true VR experiences.
What Is 360-Degree Video?
360-degree videos can feel immersive, but they lack a number of the elements that make VR feel so… real. While VR involves spatially constructed spaces and objects, 360-degree videos and images are created from a series of two-dimensional images that are “stitched” together.
These can be created by special cameras that take photos or videos of the same scenery from many different angles at once. Computer learning is also increasingly enabling the construction of spatially reconstructed environments from multiple images taken from a conventional camera.
When viewed, environments created in this way are experienced as though the viewer were standing inside of a globe. You can look around the globe, but you can’t move within the globe.
This is because the images or video that make up the experience were captured from a single point and if you were able to move away from that point it would cause distortion. If the camera is moving, it might provide some feeling of movement, and in some tricky experiences you can move from one globe to another, but that’s usually the extent of your freedom of movement.
YouTube has a lot of 360-degree videos. While they haven’t organized these videos into their own content field (yet) you can search for “360 videos” or “immersive videos” and find quite a lot, usually with special icons on the thumbnail preview to let you know that they’re immersive.
Some Experiences Are Harder to Classify
Some experiences blur the line between VR and 360-degree video. For example, the PlayStation VR’s Ocean Descent experience uses a virtually-constructed world and even requires a VR headset, but users of the experience can’t interact with or move within this experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, VRDirect uses 360-degree images and video and connects these “globes” together with a unique storyboarding software so that elements of the environment do have interactions and options. So, is it 360 video, or is it VR? We asked VRDirect CEO Dr. Rolf Illenberger.
“Where it gets tricky is interactive 360 content, meaning 360 photos/videos, but not linear experience (as in a 360 video), but an interactive experience (you decide if you want to go left or right),” Illenberger told ARPost. “We regard this as VR as it is a ‘virtual reality’ by definition, however, its content is taken from the real world and not created with a 3D tool.”
So, if some “VR” experiences aren’t interactive but some “360 videos” are, how does a creator decide which option to take?
Ocean Descent relied on VR creation tools so that it could incorporate imagined VR elements but created an immersive cinematic experience rather than a game or a tool. Platforms like VRDirect or even Google Earth’s Street View feature save the challenge and expense of VR worldbuilding while maintaining tools of control and navigation. Again, Illenberger:
“Creating VR projects with 360 content is way easier than creating 3D environments because you typically need heavy graphics work to make it look realistic, while with 360 you just need a proper 360 cam to start. Many enterprises start to integrate tools for 360 content creation (like VRDirect) in their organizations while 3D content creation is and will remain a specialist task.”
It’s a Thin Line
To some degree, the distinction between VR and 360-degree video is tenuous. For the most part, the key differentiator is how the experience was made. There may be times that you encounter a non-interactive VR experience and there may be times that you are pleasantly surprised by an interactive 360-degree video. But, that’s the nature of talking about emerging technology.