Done well, virtual reality feels immediate, immersive, and exciting. Even 360-degree video, which merely surrounds you in a scene you can’t explore, transports you to a place unlike any other. But doing VR well requires tons of money, time, and skill, only to reach the few people with the gear needed to enjoy it. Despite all the proclamations that This Will Be the Year of VR, the tech just isn’t ready.
When it is, though, YouTube wants to be the place you go. To help make that happen, it just announced VR180, an format designed to make creating immersive content a whole lot easier. VR180 cameras from LG, Lenovo, and the Chinese company Yi will follow this winter. The goal is to carve a path between today’s 2-D video and the immersive, interactive stuff of tomorrow.
Of course, VR180 does not in any way qualify as virtual reality. Rather, the format renders 180-degree video in stereoscopic 3-D. The picture appears wider than your field of view (about 135 degrees) so you must move your head slightly to take in the whole scene. Stereoscopy provides a remarkable sense of depth and size, but even at its best, it’s like sitting in a dome theater watching the night sky above you. If you turn around, all you’ll see is black.
The upside, says Erin Teague, YouTube’s VR product manager, is ease of use. There’s no need to master new editing techniques, stress about what sits behind the camera, or waste time telling viewers how to move their smartphone around or drag a video on their laptop. Best of all, in a perfect world, VR180 frees people from choosing between making high-quality videos for everyone and making immersive videos for early adopters. Watch a VR180 video on your phone, and it flattens and stretches a bit, no big deal. “They look just like any other YouTube video we have on the site,” Teague says. “So there’s no need to pan around or move your phone around.” Pop it into a Daydream headset, and the footage fills your field of view.
YouTube carries enough clout to invent a video format and expect people to actually adopt it—and others to support it. It worked with Adobe to make sure the video-editing app Premiere can handle VR180, and Teague hopes other video editors like Final Cut and Avid embrace it, too. “We want the entire ecosystem to embrace this format,” she says. We think it’s really powerful.” Beyond that, just imagine the livestreaming possibilities. Tague says 180VR provides some of the immersive properties of VR and with much higher-quality footage because it doesn’t have to stream monsoons of pixels like full 360 video.
YouTube and the Daydream VR team also convinced LG, Lenovo, and Yi to build new cameras, because it’s not like your iPhone rocks a VR180 setting. Look for hardware about the size and price of a point-and-shoot, with the capacity to shoot 180-degree 4K video through a pair of lenses on the front. Best of all, you’ll get a single image—no need to stitch or match anything. Just film, edit, and upload like any other camera.
The new format offers a stark reminder of just how far VR tech has to go before it hits the mainstream. Rather than push even further ahead of users, YouTube pulled back to create something less exciting and less impressive than VR, but far more accessible. That’s exactly what VR needs right now.