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What makes a good 360 video?

Laura Taflinger

Digital content producer, BBC Academy

360-degree virtual reality has been around for a while and used to train everyone from pilots to miners, surgeons to the military. But now the technology has been repurposed for entertainment, in part because we can easily film in 360 with affordable cameras like the Ricoh Theta and GoPro, and push it out to platforms like YouTube and Facebook, as well as headsets like Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard.

At a recent training day with BBC Research & Development, 360 video producer Edward Miller led discussions around what elements make an immersive video truly engaging, or less so. But why should you even consider making a 360 video in the first place?

360 has the ability to deeply immerse the viewer in an experience, whether it’s a real view of an event or a virtual world. Miller pointed out that researchers found the SnowWorld virtual reality headset experience more effective than morphine when treating burn patients. He even tested this idea while having his tooth extracted, by refusing anaesthetic and wearing an Oculus Rift to immerse himself in a peaceful beach scene.

Of that experience, he observed that 360 taps into “something genuinely powerful about the first person perspective”.

By studying and critiquing examples from this rapidly-developing field, producers can start to understand what is required to make a mind-blowing video, as well as learn to navigate what can go wrong. Aspects such as sound design, lighting and set design can make all the difference when a video shows you a 360-degree view, Miller argued.

Every corner needs to be interesting, otherwise the viewer can quickly get bored. What works in a normal, ‘flat’ video can be ineffective in 360, while an otherwise standard scene or setting can be brought vividly to life with the same technology.   

Here are some strong examples on YouTube, selected by Miller, of how to do 360 well. (These can only be watched using the Chrome browser or the YouTube app on an Android or iOS phone):  

School of Rock

This standout piece (pictured above) altered a musical theatre performance for a 360 set. The set is well-lit, and something is happening in all corners throughout the video. A clever use of compositing covered the ceiling light and replaced it with animated song lyrics, as well as replacing the camera’s tripod on the floor with a logo. Additional lights are hidden but come in at the end, through the cabinets and in the corner. 

The Forest

This trailer for a horror movie works well because it makes you feel as if you are really in a confined space. The stereo sound design gives the sensation of sounds coming from particular directions. The light gradually becomes lower at the back and sides to direct your attention towards the front of the tent for the final scare.

In 360, a big question is how to guide the viewer to where the action is, and the producers have used light very effectively to do this. Compare the trailer with this short 360 horror video, for instance. Although the second piece uses music effectively to build suspense, the pace drags and you don’t know where to look. Lighting could have been used to direct the viewer, rather than just create an atmosphere. Additionally, not having a first-person view of the room makes it less impactful. 

Great White Sharks Virtual Dive

This video (pictured above) not only brings you into an underwater environment, it uses special effects to show you things you wouldn’t actually see in real life, such as the anatomy inside a shark. The constantly-moving ocean life means you can follow the action, or just allow it to swim around you. It is both an immersive and educational experience, improving on the standard undersea documentary. 

Where’s Waldo

This one (pictured in top image) is just a bit of fun, and shows you the potential of 360 video as an interactive experience. The video allows you to search around you in different scenes for the famous man in the striped shirt. Sometimes there is more than one, tricking the viewer into looking elsewhere while the men in suits pursue him, or other things distract you, such as a flying UFO. Looking down also gives you a list of extra things to look for in each scene, which encourages re-watching. 

And here are some of Miller’s 360 selections that, in his view, didn’t quite hit the mark: 

BBC News – Cameron speech on the EU Referendum

Due to the camera position, this video suffers from poor sound, and a feeling of being too far away from the action. Once you have got over the fact that you are on Downing Street, you get bored with the visuals as nothing is changing. While it can make you feel as if you are one of the press pack (above), this in and of itself does not add to the story. 

Aerial Acrobatic Basketball  

While this video does have interesting action sequences as you look around the gym, again it is too far away from any individual action to make a compelling view. There is a lot going on and you don’t know where to look, leaving you feeling like you have missed out on something. This is also an example of how regular scene cuts can be jarring for the viewer when using a 360 headset – even, reportedly, causing nausea!  

Double Trouble

Apparently a rehearsal scene for a fiction film, the camera changes angles and ‘cuts’ just like a regular ‘flat’ feature film, except that the action is all happening in one quadrant and there is nothing else to look at – just like a regular feature film. Having the scenes in 360 fails to make the viewer feel like they’re really there, especially as the viewpoint continually moves around the set. 

The Neymar Effect

This 360 VR experience (pictured above) puts you in the shoes of Brazilian football star Neymar on the field during a game. But seeing things from his point of view means there is no real reason to be looking anywhere other than at the football. Although an interesting idea and a big budget film, a wider field of view could have saved it. 

With thanks to BBC Academy researcher Keeren Flora for additional material.


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