the problem with 360 video – mixed user agency

Right now everyone is hot on 360 degree video. Youtube now has tons of content (#360video on, and companies are rushing to make camera rigs better and cheaper (e.g. Ricoh Theta which is shipping now, and HumanEyes Vuze which isn’t). Now I will admit that I have become a huge fan of Google’s cardboard camera.

For those who haven’t experienced it, the process is dead simple (and why it is so great). On my Nexus 5x phone I open the cardboard camera app, shoot a 360 degree panorama still (we’re used to shooting panoramas on phones). Then after some quick processing, you hit the cardboard logo (in the same app – this is key), pop the phone in the viewer and viola – you have an immersive capture of the environment. While there are commercial applications, for me this is a “killer app” as the resulting 360 is much more evocative in cardboard than a single still photo or even a pano photo could be. As an added bonus, the app captures ambient sound which greatly adds to the effect.

It isn’t super high fidelity, and there is no video. But you don’t need it, and the power is in the simplicity of the process and end product and the human provides the motion, engaging their body in the process. It doesn’t try too hard, and then it over-delivers. The power in this is that it provides the human a compelling representation of a space where an experience took place. The story is embedded in the human brain, but the immersion of the image and ambient sound helps bring it back. Hence the bivalence, and binding of digital to analog.

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So what about video? Well, that is a much more mixed bag. Here’s where the 360 video shines – providing an experience of a place (especially high risk ones). But a narrative? Not so much. Some examples like the Mythbusters shark videos try to drive a story with the narrator providing hints to the user, but this falls in the uncanny valley of user agency. It is neither linear narrative, nor full user exploration. It is somewhere in the middle – mixed user agency, and it frankly isn’t compelling.

One of the things that makes the still photo so great is that the user has complete agency – the only motion is initiated by the viewer. As a bonus ambient audio greatly heightens the immersion. A 360 video however is a mix of user agency and things beyond their control (e.g. 30 frames per second). That becomes unsatisfying, again falling into another uncanny valley. Oddly enough, while the ambient sound loop added to the still strengthens the experience, narration and sound in a 360 video tends to be either distracting or ignored. There are just too many cues present, and the mixed user agency plunges the user into anxiety, frustration, or dismay. Just goes to show that a human engages sound differently than visual cues.

Another factor is whose experience is being experienced. If a person generates content then views it later, a video might have a much greater impact due to the personal connection. That is part of the power of the cardboard camera – you have it with you, and you capture a 360 slice of life that you can revisit. And since it is a still it “ages” better. If you are engaging someone else’s experience, even though you’re “immersed” it still is someone else’s life. There is a limit to the engagement.

The long play is that I’m big on immersive stills with sound, but I’m cold on 360 video unless there is a conceptual breakthrough on how narrative plays out.