Whatever happened to VR180?
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
The stereoscopic immersive video format, VR180, which Google launched in 2017, appears to be near to death following key hardware and software support dropping for the format. The failing format introduced compromises to the viewer's VR experience primarily for the ease of production. In an era where viewers demand more this seems to have been an odd decision.
Asked in late 2019 by Variety magazine for updates on the VR180 format a Google spokesperson advised there were none. Ominous.
A number of camera manufacturers including Virtual Reality camera stalwarts Lenovo and Yi confirmed support in 2017 when Google announced VR180 as a new, simpler format for immersive media. VR180 aimed to bridge the gap between VR headsets and the web albeit with some compromises, but in the end appears to have satisfied neither. The few VR180 cameras which did make it to market are being discounted, although for stereoscopic enthusiasts they may still be of interest.
THE BENEFITS OF VR180
The primary benefits of VR180 content was that it didn’t need to be stitched as it was shot using two side by side fish eye lenses creating a basic stereoscopic output without further post production, although the footage (as with any stereoscopic footage) would be viewable in 2D on a standard screen. This made production simpler in some regards as stitching, especially in 3D, is a tricky process. However "traditional" editors still faced a steep learning curve involving working with weirdly formatted stereoscopic 3D footage to produce virtual reality films in software which wasn't particularly 3D friendly (at the time).
THE PROBLEMS WITH VR180
Stereoscopic 3D. Most users (sadly) didn’t and still don't have VR headsets, so the stereoscopic effect was limited to those who did. Although I’d happily call myself a committed supporter of stereoscopic 3D I am aware that 3D as a format has a less than stellar track record. So although stereo 3d was great for a select few who had the hardware and cared enough to track down the content this appears to be a niche market when considering the next point which was the major compromise.
VR180 is half of VR360. This for me appears to have been the real issue. Here’s the problem(s).
(A) Limited 3D Audience
Viewers with VR HMDs could view VR180 footage in stereo 3d which is a benefit, but can only look half way around it. That’s pretty good, but not as good for the viewer as full 360 in 3D and for those who are committed to VR 360 would be an absolute requirement.
(B) Limited Plausability Illusion
On a PC screen, where the stereoscopic 3D VR180 effect is lost, you can only scroll 180 degrees. Here the user is only getting a 50% experience of a typical VR film. VR180 simply breaks the plausibility illusion of VR. You might as well have just shot a POV film with a standard camera and not bothered with the VR aspect of it.
VR180: A COMPROMISE TOO FAR
VR180, for a viewer just didn’t add up. It was a format made to simplify the creation process for producers by limiting its capabilities. End viewers don’t care if it was difficult to make, in fact I suspect they prefer to know it is! The format limited the experience for HMD and screen based viewers without providing any benefits to them.
In what looks like a final blow for the format, Google gifted the technology necessary to build VR180 cameras to the open source community last year, so although now anyone can make the cameras, Google appears to have given up on the format.
Although considerably more challenging the solution is to shoot VR360 in 3D which allows viewers in headsets the maximum immersion and viewers watching on a flat screen still get a full spin round view of the scene. The compromise should be on the producer, not the end viewer.
From my view here in 2020 it appears that VR180 is dead.
Andrew Murchie is a creative technology consultant and award winning filmmaker based in Edinburgh in Scotland. He has produced stereoscopic 3D VR films in full 360 degrees for clients including Menabrea Birra, Seafood Scotland, Highland Spring, Glen Scotia Distillery & The Real Mary King’s Close.