Virtual Reality, or “VR” for short, has become increasingly popular over the past few months and years. The concept is far from new, with early forms and iterations dating back half a century or more. However, improvements in technology have made VR media much more readily accessible, and viewable on nearly any mobile device.
I would like to posit that VR media is shifting the way in which we consume videos, and in turn, shaping how those videos are made to begin with. As VR headsets become more popular, less expensive, and more easily obtainable, there has been and will continue to be a push to create more VR content. As mobile device technology improves, both in display quality and processing power, almost anyone with a smartphone will soon be able to view VR media with a device they already own.
While VR is certainly impressive, and a properly implemented VR video is quite marvelous, this technology is not without flaws.
Perhaps the most glaring issue with VR video is the reliance on a gyroscope to look around without touching the screen or a mouse. Most mobile devices have a gyroscope built in, but watching these videos on a traditional laptop or desktop leaves the user stuck in one orientation. They can use a mouse or touchscreen to drag the perspective around, but such a task breaks immersion.
Even on devices with gyroscopes, VR media can be frustrating to view when the user must physically turn around, or pan up and down, to change the perspective. There is often a physical override to drag the perspective around, as done with laptops and desktops, but it can be finicky on mobile devices in my experience. Plus, I rarely use my phone in an area that I can freely spin around, at least without getting funny looks. Try watching VR videos while riding on the subway, or in the passenger seat of a moving car, and let me know how that works.
If a video is one seamless shot, following the action isn’t tremendously difficult. As the subjects or focal points shift around, you can simply turn the screen or shift your device to follow them. However, this is a completely different story in videos with numerous shots and cuts. Even if the action is going on in generally the same direction between two shots, it can be jarring to suddenly be looking at the ground, sky, or some unimportant portion of the scene and have to look around and find the focal point again.
For a single viewer, most of these issues are minor inconveniences at worst. However, what about times when you want to show a video to someone else. If I have the same habits as others who have shared videos as friends, it’s always fun to watch their reaction while simultaneously watching the video with them. VR videos, especially on mobile devices, don’t make that easy. Do you crowd up next to the person or people you’re showing the video to, and try to shift the phone around such that everyone can see and you’re still focused on the right area in the video? Do you just hand over your device to the viewer (and in some cases, hope they don’t run off with your phone)? In my experience, I haven’t found a good way to show someone a VR video on my phone.
There are times when VR is done right, but there are plenty of times when VR is done very, very wrong.
Casey Neistat “DroneBoarding in 360”
These flaws with VR became most clear to me recently, while watching a video of “DroneBoarding”, a new practice of snowboarding up a mountain while being pulled by a drone. Watching the video is much more involved than just pressing the play button and passively absorbing the content. Because the video is in a VR format, you have to follow the action around. The static position when you start the video stays *mostly* on the center of attention, but there are some slight shifts from shot to shot.
Being able to see everything going on around the camera position looks cool, but it becomes very hard to keep up with the action. After every cut, there are a few moments where you have to figure out what to actually look at. Considering how many cuts most sports videos have, you’re trying to find the focal point more often than actually watching it.
When I tried to show my cousin, it was even worse. Instead of just handing him the phone, I tried to watch the video with him. In addition to the hassle of tracking the action, I had to keep the phone in a position that we could both see the screen. It was cumbersome and unpleasant, and I genuinely feel like a standard video with static camera angles would’ve been much better.
Google I/O 2016
Another somewhat recent example of VR media that could’ve been improved is Google’s I/O conference from 2016. The keynote presentation was recorded in VR, from a static position in the audience.
With I/O 2016, the point of interest was much easier to follow. The video had no cuts between shots, and the action all happened directly in front of the initial camera position. It wasn’t difficult to watch, but why bother showing the content in VR? If everything interesting is on a single stage, what benefit do viewers have to look around? You could maybe say VR is more “immersive,” but even those attending the conference in person are more concerned with what’s happening on stage, than what’s going on around them.
Resident Evil 7
Though examples of bad VR are a dime a dozen, some VR is done spectacularly well. While I haven’t directly experienced it in VR due to my lack of a PlayStation VR headset, the demo for Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is playable in VR and looks amazing.
This is a case where I could see VR being an awesome experience. You aren’t just exploring via controller and seeing the action on your TV screen, you’re literally perceiving as if you’re in the game. You move your head around physically to look around. Having seen streams of people playing the demo in VR, it looks spectacular. As scary as the game was playing normally, it looks infinitely more terrifying to play in VR.
Into the Future
Is this push toward VR video good or bad? I don’t think it definitively falls either way. There are good things and there are bad things about the sudden influx of VR content on YouTube, Facebook, et al. For the good, VR gives viewers a more immersive experience, instead of just watching from a static position determined by the recorder. For the bad, many content producers shoehorn their media into VR, when it really doesn’t belong.
The ideal balance is for VR to be used when appropriate, but forgone when a traditional video recording is better for the content. Exploring a foreign landscape is much more apt to be displayed in VR, while a conference or presentation is better left to a static camera that displays the entire stage without being shifted around. There is a time and a place for VR, but not all content should be forced into a VR format.
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