What is VR Video?

One of the new filmmaking tools that has recently caught the attention of marketing agencies, tech savvy consumers, and video buffs is VR video. Technically, VR stands for “virtual reality,” a fact most people know already, but what is VR as it pertains to video? Though the term VR video is now omnipresent, it’s actually not “virtual reality” in any meaningful sense. In a complete sense, virtual reality is meant to create an immersive virtual world with as many replications of the actual experience as possible, including sight, sound, touch, and even smell.

In video gaming, a virtual reality experience typically means a headset of some kind, 3-D imagery, and the ability to interact with the gaming world and impact the environment. Nintendo’s commercially unsuccessful though innovative Virtual Boy was an early attempt in the 1990s to enter the VR world. More recently, several tech companies have started to offer headsets for VR gaming, with confirmation that Sony will create a VR Playstation. Meanwhile, Google’s Oculus Rift has made waves in the tech industry for its promise as a future content platform. In video production and video marketing, however, VR video refers to 360 videos that allow the user to choose the camera angle.

VR videos are not an immersive experience as much as they are a user-controlled experience, which has advantages and disadvantages from a storytelling perspective, whether one is considering VR video for marketing purposes or narrative filmmaking purposes. Think of VR videos as allowing the user to choose where to focus their attention, but from one single camera position at a time. While the technology’s implementation in more sophisticated ways is new, the idea and concept is not. Most people saw the cheesy 360 photo / video tour videos from the 1990s and early 2000s, a technology that real estate agents enjoyed but that often provided a confusing and visually lacking experience for most users. VR video has a lot more capability by harnessing an array of video cameras all in one position recording simultaneously.

Strengths and Weaknesses of VR Video

In discussing the strengths and weaknesses of VR video, consider the type of project you want to create. A corporate video production company making a video for a client with a spokesperson at the front of a room demonstrating a small product’s functionality and features is not going to benefit at all from allowing the viewer to rotate their view 360 degrees from a stationary position. In fact, allowing the viewer to do so would increase the likelihood the viewer simply misses seeing the product at all while looking at the back of the room, where nothing is happening.

By contrast, imagine a tourism bureau hiring a video production company to make an impressive, immersive tour video for their city and each shot places the viewer in the middle of an exciting location, like Times Square or L.A. Live, and allows the viewer to look around them at every angle and imagine being there. The value of such a video is obvious and gives the viewer full control over experiencing a far-away place from home.

For narrative use, imagine shooting a short film where at any given time, there is a main storyline and dialogue, but behind or to the side of the main action are other “easter eggs” or side stories. The storytelling complexity introduced is exciting and the benefits could be far-reaching in encouraging multiple views of the same project, each view with a different experience for the user depending on where they decide to look. A narrative piece could contain deeper meaning and hidden messages that can only be uncovered with multiple viewings and a dedicated viewer searching for answers.

Potential Dangers and Shortfalls of VR Video

Although the ability to imbed more content into a shorter time frame is compelling, it is also potentially dangerous. Filmmakers have always had complete control over their medium, unlike video game developers, but the lines blur with VR videos. What if the user misses a key story point by looking somewhere besides where the main action occurs? What if the user is confused where to look during each scene and misses the point, then out of frustration closes the video early?

Another shortfall of VR video — an ironic one, at that — is the relative inability to introduce other camera moves into the video project. In other words, jib shots, dolly shots, handheld shots, steadicam shots, and any other manner of moving shots become almost impossible to use at all in VR videos. Technically, they can be accomplished, but most studies have found that users become dizzy and disoriented if the camera is moving on its own and they also have the ability to move the camera in a 360 degree complete circle. As a result, VR videos are almost entirely composed of stationary shots allowing the only camera movement to be controlled by the viewer / user.

The irony exists because VR videos are cutting-edge technology but in the early days of sync sound filmmaking (after the silent era), a “locked off,” stationary camera was the norm for years, only for different reasons. Cameras not only weighed a lot, but they were extremely noisy, which meant they had to be contained in sound-padded boxes so as not to interfere with the audio being recorded from the actors.

For narrative Web use, especially for experimental projects, VR videos have a lot of fun uses and a certain novelty factor that makes them fun to make and fun to view. Especially when created for fan bases of existing popular people or franchises, they have the potential to provide a level of engagement that satisfies the die-hard fan and brings them closer to “being there” at a concern, in a fantasy world, or wherever else the content-creators desire. While there are pitfalls and challenges, they need not be the only content created, but rather just another option for engagement.

Corporate VR Video Potential

For corporate video production, VR videos have promise if used properly and for the right types of projects. Never be sucked into a fad or trend and spend extra money using technology if you’re not even sure of the advantages or purpose of the technology, but explore the option when it makes sense for the product or service. A landscape and gardening company could benefit from VR videos, for instance, by placing a VR camera setup in several impressive outdoor areas they have worked, then using voiceover to explain the work done, and allowing the viewer to look around in 360 degrees at the project as a whole.

Each shot in a VR video could hold for 20 or 30 seconds before moving to the next garden or outdoor space. A hotel could allow viewers to look around each area — swimming pool, gym, lobby, etc. — at their own pace and command, along with seeing bedroom setups from a controlled 360 perspective. The applications are numerous, but being aware of the advantages and disadvantages of VR video production is essential for understanding whether it’s the right solution for your corporate video production or Web video.