Like early cinema, spherical video today consists mostly of actuality and experimentation with some attempts at fictional storytelling sprinkled around the fringes. If the trajectory of spherical video is anything like that of traditional moving pictures, I predict it will be years, maybe even decades, before we’re in the habit of watching our big summer blockbusters through a headset.
It would seem 360 video and VR are poised to go mainstream. 360 video rigs and cameras are becoming increasingly affordable. Most major editing suites support the spherical format. And perhaps most important, major distribution platforms like YouTube and Facebook make it easy to upload and share 360 content.
We have the technology to support immersive storytelling; what’s holding VR and 360 video back from the mainstream? Why aren’t 360 feature films pouring out of Hollywood? Is it really that hard to produce narratives in 360 video and VR? Certainly, many technophiles out there are already trying. Is there not enough demand? Admittedly, a decent VR headset will still set you back several hundred dollars, and even the more democratic Google Cardboard is hardly a fixture in the average household. Is distribution the real issue here?
These certainly factor into the rate at which immersive video is adopted, but the larger factor maybe that creators just aren’t sure what to do with the medium. As much as technology has sped up our lives, it has not yet made it possible to instantly manifest an entirely new visual language.
Like the language of cinema, the new languages of virtual reality and spherical video will take a long time to develop.
People have tried to make universal languages, but nothing has come closer than film. That’s in no small part because of the representational nature of film — pictures of other humans — but deeper than that, we have the camera itself, which serves as a means of positions ourselves within the narrative on the screen. This is what makes camera movement so visceral, why we can get motion sick watching “Cloverfield.” Cinema creates a subject position from which we can view and understand a fictional world. That subject position, in most narrative film, is extremely narrow and highly directed.
The spherical viewing experience amplifies that subject position effect, but fails to give it much, if any, direction. That’s why spherical video works so well for tours and travel videos but is so difficult and clumsy in many narrative applications. Narratives require a directed experience to make sense, and simply transposing the rules of cinema onto spherical video is not sufficient to maintain that sense of direction.
We don’t know the rules of VR and spherical video yet because we haven’t developed them as a culture yet. No one can write those rules; they must emerge from the medium just as the rules of cinematic storytelling have emerged over decades of push and pull between creator and viewer — or perhaps more influential, between creator and creator. Our understanding of cinema is based on years of experience with the medium, both as individuals and as a culture.
The same development will need to happen with spherical video and VR. It may happen faster in our hyperconnected world, but it will still take time and a lot of experimentation to find the most effective ways to direct audience attention while still taking advantage of the special qualities of the immersive viewing experience.