This guest column comes from Ian Baverstock, managing director of Focal Point VR:
Focal Point VR recently provided the live streaming technology for a product launch; a major brand showcasing a fast rising band at an exclusive event in North London with a VIP and competition winner audience.
Nothing very new in there so far, despite the quality of the product and the band. The innovation here was that the event – the UK launch of the Samsung S8 smartphone, with Royal Blood performing – was streamed live and in high quality 360-degree video.
The results were excellent in terms of both views (over 8.5M so far) and engagement.
360-degree video allows the viewer to completely immerse themselves in the stream. This simple level of interaction obviously gives viewers more engagement because they have something to do, somewhere else to look and an instant reward for focusing on the stream. But there’s much more to it than that.
Audiences are cynical. Years of carefully crafted video direction, photoshop and post processing have served to inoculate viewers against believing what they’re seeing. However the viewer’s ability in 360° to look everywhere, and to do so under their own control, gives this format dramatically more authenticity.
There is a price to pay from the content creator’s point of view though; that same authenticity makes it harder to hide what’s going on: camera angles and zooms are hard to implement, cuts can be disorientating and moving the camera can make viewers uncomfortable.
Lighting and staging for the Samsung event was very carefully set specifically for 360-degree; there are definitely new techniques and approaches for any live event where 360-degree video is going to be part of the output.
To date, live streaming 360-degree at high quality has faced some significant challenges. The processing task of creating a single all round video stream from the multiple 4K cameras used to create broadcast quality 360° streams is considerable.
The decision about where to look in the stream has to remain with the viewer and networks don’t allow that decision to be sent to the server to cut down the field of view streamed to the user; the latency on the networks is too high and the result is usually a very juddery experience.
So, a high quality stream requires a lot of processing power and clever software at the source, a lot of bandwidth up to the cloud and then a highly-optimised stream down to the viewer.
Focal Point’s Ubiety platform is designed specifically to address all those issues with the ability to stitch broadcast quality sources into a 6K+ resolution stream in real time and transport those over standard domestic broadband infrastructure to viewers.
In practice, today, a high proportion of viewers are watching on channels like YouTube, Facebook Live and Periscope. This reduces the cost for streams in that the downstream bandwidth to the viewer is free.
For streams where distribution reach is valuable this is a good solution but the quality is intrinsically limited by the platforms to keep their bandwidth costs down. Of course those seeking to directly monetise their content can’t easily use free distribution platforms!
It’s also the case that most 360-degree viewers on these platforms are using a 2D screen; either rotating the image around using a mouse on a desktop or physically pointing their phone around on mobile devices.
This is definitely not the optimal experience for the viewer but is still a novelty. Increasing penetration of VR headsets, especially the very low cost ones which use the viewer’s mobile phone, will steadily widen the uptake of ‘proper’ headset viewing of these streams.
Longer term, the addition of stereoscopic streams – initially in 180-degree form and then later 360-degree and further enhanced to include depth data in the video field – will incrementally move the viewing experience further away from conventional 2D viewing. All of these trends will require headsets to work.
Google have just announced a big initiative around 180-degree stereo streams for YouTube. Other future developments will see viewers being able to share experiences socially from different remote locations, for example through shared Voice-Over-IP allowing friends to talk about the event they’re watching.
The big win for brands, content owners and viewers with live 360-degree streams is the feeling that you, as the viewer, are really ‘present’ at the camera’s location. There is a dramatically higher sense of immersion, engagement and an instant reward for interaction.
The combination of 360-degree viewing and live streaming leaves the viewer a real feeling of authenticity about the content they are watching. For content owners, event managers and live performers there is a new, much better, way to open your event to a significantly larger number of people.
Focal Point VR is a UK-based company developing social features and professional camera interfaces for VR video