In praise of 360° video

This is a transcribed version of my talk at the Coursera Conference 2017. It has been edited slightly for readability.

When I was at a seminar a few weeks ago, someone asked me why on Earth I was working on 360 videos, because ‘it’s so 2016’.  And you know what? He was right. The gimmicky nature of 360 video is wearing off. By now, many of us have seen 360 videos on YouTube or Facebook. It’s becoming more and more mainstream. And in my opinion, this is a good thing. Now we get to explore the exciting possibilities of this new medium. When cinema arrived at the end of the nineteenth century, it was a blank slate for which new narrative techniques and storytelling conventions had to be developed. The same is true for 360 video.

And there is huge potential here. Already, NGOs, youtubers and artists are churning out interesting experiments every day. And it’s not surprising. Virtual reality in the form of 360 video has become very accessible. If you have the YouTube or Facebook app on your smartphone, you can start watching 360 videos right now. But one of its major potential uses remains relatively untouched: education. Can we use 360 video for online education, and if so, how?

Before we try to answer this question, allow me to quickly bring you up to speed on what 360 video is. Very briefly: Using a special camera, like the ones above, we can capture video at every angle. These images are then stitched together and uploaded to a platform like YouTube. Then comes the fun part: we put on a headset, and we experience the video in every direction. Of course, if you don’t have a headset, you can still view the video in a browser or in the regular app.

Click to view a short teaser of a 360 video that’s part of our MOOC ‘Heritage under Threat’. In the video, a farmer tells us what it’s like to live and work on a UNESCO heritage site.

Why use 360?

This brings me to the next question: why would you use 360 video? The most compelling reason is that you can show more than a simple camera shot. You can look around you and experience a virtual world in all its glory. It gives the viewer a sense of presence. However, many projects aren’t suitable for 360. I have a rule of thumb: if you find yourself focussing on one element only, don’t use 360. Standard video is very good for capturing a specific part of a situation, much better than 360 in fact. Ideally, 360 videos should give the viewer a reason to look around them. Three examples we are working on at Leiden University: living on a national heritage site, interactive tours & safety training in our labs, and surgical procedures.

A second, equally important reason to use 360 VR is virtual empathy. The effect of walking a mile in someone else’s boots. Seeing, hearing and feeling the story from someone else’s side. We automatically assume, for instance, that it’s a good thing if archaeology is preserved as a UNESCO Heritage Site. For the people who have lived there for generations, however, it may not be such good news. We put our viewer in the farmer’s boots, to experience his ambivalent relationship with the heritage site. Virtual empathy can help our viewer go beyond simply understanding a concept. They can feel it.

Finally, there’s a third reason why you would want to use 360 VR: interactivity. Right now, interactive 360 video is still in its infancy, unlike its sibling, digital virtual reality. However, our first experiments are promising. The key advantage that interactive 360 videos have over digital virtual reality is their basis in reality. Digital VR is a representation, a version of reality stripped down to the essentials. One of our interactive 360 pilots, on the other hand, was shot inside one of our chemistry labs. There are instruments on the shelves, people are walking around, the machines you have to work with are identical to the ones you use in reality. After one of our chemistry training videos, you’ll be able to walk into the lab much more confidently, because you’ve already experienced it once.

The practical part

Ok, so now we know what it is, and why we use it. But how do you do it? Let me break it down for you.

Selection: Like I mentioned before, start with a strong case study. One that lends itself to a virtual environment, storytelling and virtual empathy. If this is going to be your first 360 video, create realistic expectations with every party involved. It’s an experiment, and it might not work.

Development: The development phase doesn’t differ much from regular video production. There are two core aspects: learning experience design and storytelling. In my experience, people have the tendency to focus on the technological side more than on the content. As soon as the case study has been picked, they’ll get all enthusiastic and run off with their 360 camera. However, as with any video we make for our learners, we first have to come up with a strong, didactically sound concept. Ask yourself the same questions you’d normally ask. What are the learning goals of my 360 video? What’s going to be the viewer’s take-away? What’s the story? Why is it engaging?

Practice: Next up is practice. Shooting 360 video is complex and probably unfamiliar. Do your homework. That means scouting the locations of your shoot, talking to the people involved and doing a few test shoots. Plan ahead, and remember: you’re going to have to direct people, but you can’t appear on-screen. You’ll have to get the right shots, but you can’t really frame it like you’d normally do. My experience: every hour of prep will save you hours of headaches and problems further down the road.

Shooting: Now we’re ready to shoot. What do you need? Of course, you’ll need a special 360 camera. There are several options on the market, ranging from a simple pick-up-and-play device like the Ricoh Theta S, to expensive, stereoscopic cameras. The Ricoh’s resolution isn’t very good, but it stitches automatically, making it ideal for quick tests. For our main shoots, we use the rig on the right, by 360RIZE. It contains six GoPro cameras, delivering a high-resolution, professional-quality image.

Shooting in 360 comes with its own quirks. As a filmmaker, I’m used to standing behind the camera. But in 360, there is no ‘behind the camera’. Everything is in view! Many times, I’ve had to find a good hiding place in order not to appear on screen. In our case, six cameras means pushing six recording buttons. That’s why it’s wise to get a remote control, so you can turn all of them on or off at the same time. But the remote works on wifi, which is an energy drain. So you’ll need more batteries, or a USB hub to charge them while shooting. This in turn will lead to overheating cameras that shut down automatically. And so on, and so forth. As I said before, it’s a complicated, difficult process. The technology hasn’t fully matured yet.

Post: Finally, post-production. After organising our footage, we import it into software that stitches everything together. We do some fancy stabilisation, horizon straightening and color correction, and then it’s ready for editing. Since last year, Adobe Premiere Pro supports VR editing. We already use Premiere for our regular video production, so editing the vr-footage fits neatly into our existing workflow. When it’s exported, we release our videos on YouTube.

Go do it!

Now, don’t let this put you off experimenting with 360 videos. Getting into it may seem daunting, unfamiliar, and expensive, but I mention all of this so you’re a little bit better prepared than I was when I started working with 360 video. And don’t forget: it’s also a lot of fun!

To conclude, let’s go back to my original question. Can we use 360 video for online education? My answer is yes, absolutely. It’s a powerful new tool in our creative, didactic arsenal. 360 videos create a whole new sense of presence, increase our capability of teaching through storytelling and brings our theoretical lectures into the real world. Like I said before, this is uncharted and unfamiliar terrain, but I think we owe it to our learners to give them the best educational experience possible. 

Next ArticleVR and the early days of cinema