Thursday, March 31, 2016

Opinion: Why Google's VR View is a Big Deal

TL;DR: VR View will do for sharing what Theta did for capturing and what Cardboard did for viewing 360 photos.

Yesterday, Google released VR View.  Here's why it has the potential to take the popularity of VR to the next level.

BACKGROUND

360 photos have been around for a long time now.  The first "virtual tour" was as early as 1994.  Streetview is almost 10 years old (it launched 2007).  Sure, it sparked some interest, but not the same level of hype we see today.

What changed was that it suddenly became easy for the average consumer to create 360 photos, thanks to cameras such as the Ricoh Theta.  Without a 360 camera, 360 panoramas either have to be captured by moving the camera or phone, which usually leads to many stitching errors, or with a dedicated panorama setup (with panoramic tripod, etc.), which is technically demanding.  There were also catadioptric lens solutions for smartphones, but the quality was meh.  The Theta revolutionized 360 capture because it made it easy enough for a child to do, and the image quality was good enough that you didn't have to apologize for it.

This democrcatization also occurred in 360 content consumption with Google Cardboard, which gave anyone with a smartphone a way to experience 360 photos and videos immersively.

WHAT'S MISSING?

However, one of the pieces that's still missing is ease of sharing 360 photos and videos.  For example, in a review of the otherwise popular Ricoh Theta S, writer Jason Cipriani lamented the difficulty of sharing 360 photos and videos.  To share 360 images, you have to upload a 360 photo to a website or app that would enable viewers to interact with the 360 image.  It's not difficult, but it's a couple of steps removed from sharing JPEGs.

But what if you didn't need to upload a 360 image to a special website or app?  And what if that 360 image could still be viewed on any Android or iOS smartphone, with 360-degree interaction and even the option to switch to a Google Cardboard view?

That's exactly what VR View is about.  It democratizes the sharing of 360 images.

With VR View, you don't need a special website or app to upload your 360 image.  You can upload it on a non-360 image hosting service, such as Imgur, and it would still be viewable as a 360 image, with the help of a little behind-the-scenes work from VR View.

HOW TO USE VR VIEW

As a 360 content creator, you don't need special coding skills to use VR View.  You can embed a 360 image on a webpage using a simple iframe tag.  Here is a sample tag:

<iframe width="80%" allowfullscreen frameborder="0" src="//storage.googleapis.com/vrview/index.html?image=http://i.imgur.com/K8dN0IR.jpg"></iframe>

In the sample tag above, "http://i.imgur.com/K8dN0IR.jpg" is the image address.  You can see that the image is hosted on Imgur, not on Theta360.com or a 360-specific website.

Here is what the result looks like:


If you're on a smartphone, you should see the option to switch to Google Cardboard view.  That was easy!

Google open-sourced the code so you can host it on your own server.  They also gave the SDK for Andoid and iOS to easily add VR View to your app.  But this article is about democratization so I won't get into that.

Suffice to say that 360 photos and videos should become much more common, thanks to VR View.  In the near future, they may become so ubiquitous that while they certainly won't replace regular photos and videos, 360 photos and videos would be expected by consumers.