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Visual Storytelling

360 Video vs. Virtual Reality

Lately, we find all forms of content adapting to the myriad of new technology available to us. Some of this amounts to sheer novelty, but some of the more immersive content being developed is in the very early stages of changing the way we weave a narrative with familiar media.

As we’re being bombarded with new delivery methods like the Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, or Facebook and YouTube’s 360° video features, I can’t help but notice some semantic inconsistencies. So let me disambiguate Virtual Reality (VR) and 360° Video.

360 Video vs. Virtual Reality

The mere mention of VR conjures up images of people wearing goggles. However, most content available for wearable headsets isn’t a true VR experience, but rather a 360° video format. So, what defines virtual reality content, and what defines video that wraps around the viewer continuously?

Both platforms offer a more immersive experience for the viewer – or I should say, the user. But while 360° video gives us the opportunity to explore an environment, true VR offers us interaction with the environment. At its most basic, VR will track eye movement to give us the means to navigate the environment and interact with the experience. More advanced VR experiences offer hand-operated controls and even gloves, enabling us to reach out to grasp items.

In VR, the user can travel throughout a scene, while a 360° video lets the user view a scene from one point in the environment. This makes storytelling a matter of nuance. The video is playing out all around the viewer, so how do we focus their attention where the relevant action is?

Through the use of calculated sound design, 360° video can manipulate the viewer’s focus. If we need the viewer to look to their left, an audio cue – someone speaking or a ringing phone – can draw their attention to where the action is, ensuring the viewer isn’t looking in the wrong direction and missing something important. Granted, these techniques can also be applied to VR. But unlike VR, 360° video content has a life outside of a wearable headset. YouTube, Facebook, and Vimeo all offer platforms for 360° video experiences to live on our desktop computers, tablets, and mobile devices, amounting to a wider reach.

Simply, the differences between 360° video and VR are mobility and interaction. You are an immersed spectator in 360° video, while VR makes you an active participant.

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David Miller
David works closely with Cadient's brand teams to create compelling and engaging story-driven content. His two-decade-long career spans journalism, broadcast, marketing media, music production, and net neutrality advocacy.
David Miller

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