Virtual Reality and 360° Video: What’s the Difference?

October 10th, 2017 Michael Chomet


VR & 360 video: What the heck’s the difference?
There’s a tendency to conflate VR and 360, and I hope to clear up some of the differences between the two. To make matters more confusing, 360-degree video is sometimes referred to as “VR 360.” The two are very much related but have many differences in their usage and in their production.

What exactly is VR?
VR, strictly speaking, requires a head-mounted display to view, a VR headset that you wear on your face like goggles. Sometimes they’re referred to as “HMD.” To get the full VR experience, a viewer needs to wear these goggles and audio headphones. It’s a completely immersive experience taking up your complete field of vision.

Ok, then what’s 360 video?
360-degree video, on the other hand, does not require any additional equipment other than your smartphone, tablet or desktop computer. You can use goggles to view 360-degree videos, and it does make the experience more immersive, but it’s not at all necessary. 360-degree video is becoming more ubiquitous because it’s easily uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube and the technology to create is now available to consumers.

One example is the Insta360Air, a small camera that plugs directly into a smartphone allowing anyone to shoot clips in 360 and easily post them. Only two years ago, to shoot 360 video, you needed many GoPro cameras in a do-it-yourself rig. It was a big ordeal to download all the videos, sync, and stitch them together. It was expensive and cumbersome. Now the process in the consumer version is less expensive and much more user friendly.
In a nutshell, consumer 360 is optimized for viewing on a phone or portable device, and is not necessarily designed to be used with a VR head-mounted display.

But when would I use 360?
Because of 360’s prevalence, it’s great for consumers capturing life’s moments. I think of short 360 videos as “super selfies.” They’re casual and viewable by most people on several different platforms.

360 videos haven’t really seen their full potential for internal corporate use. It has been used primarily for marketing, entertainment, and some documentary news. 360 video is a media platform that has great potential for corporate use because it amplifies one of linear video’s greatest attributes: the ability to show, not tell. (One example of a company using 360 is the recruiting series for BASF.)

Right, so why would I use VR?
In terms of use, VR has the potential to go much deeper and can be combined with artificial intelligence to augment reality.

A great example of VR combined with AI is a project from ThoughtWorks. They are exploring VR to help train technicians to maintain aircraft engines. Today, airline engine maintenance technicians require an actual airplane for training. The problem is, you don’t want an airplane down on the ground for very long, because it’s not making money. Obviously it’s more profitable to keep airplanes in the air. In order to train technicians AND keep the plane in the air, ThoughWorks is developing a Virtual Reality of the exact engine, and will have maintenance engineers training on VR real-time on the plane engine without the plane being there. Each engine is unique and different and has thousands of pages of manuals for maintenance. An engineer or technician can never memorize all of it, so traditionally they’ve had to use a giant book and leaf through it.

With this new application for VR, in conjunction with AI, the technician could say something like, “I’m looking at the fuel pump. Call up fuel pump information,” and it calls up all the specs instantly.

The differentiator between VR and 360 is that if you’re shooting it in 360 on your iPhone, it’s not going to give you the same experience as if it was in VR where you could actually walk around and look solve a problem from different angles and perspectives. 360 video wouldn’t be as effective as an interactive training mechanism as VR and AI.

Do you think VR will Catch On?
There’s a prediction that VR will be a $36B industry by 2026. A head-mounted display is an experiential situation that’s a requirement with VR. There are many reasons why it’s probably never going to become totally mainstream (aside from gaming). For one thing, people are fearful when they can’t see anything or their eyes are covered, or, conversely, when they’re forced to look at something — that’s just automatically an uncomfortable scenario.

The second part is that people enjoy shared experiences. For example, even if you’re sitting in the movies or on a couch watching TV, you look over and make a comment or grab popcorn. You share a YouTube video with your friends over email or on Facebook. VR is more isolating. With a head-mounted display, you can’t really share that experience in real life.

There is a new technology called “The Big Screen,” in which you can see the other person as an avatar next to you and you can interact with them. It’s an augmented reality environment.

The third reason is that VR requires an extra step of purchasing additional equipment and physically putting it on your head. We’ve seen years ago when the movie Avatar came out a surge in 3D TVs, which also required a viewer to wear 3D glasses for viewing. After an initial uptick in the uniqueness of the experience many consumers have not adopted consistent usage.

Well then, should I invest in VR or 360.
I believe that 360 will soon be recognized as a standard format like HD and 4K. With 360, your audience doesn’t need extra equipment, they’re just looking at Facebook or YouTube and they can use their mouse to look around. People are already comfortable with it from a user standpoint. Currently VR is expensive, but useful for specific scenarios like gaming. 360 is the way to go.