The unlikely star of virtual reality: real-world panoramas

First, a confession: When I was asked to see a 360-degree, fully spherical panoramic picture of The Colosseum in virtual reality, I thought, "meh, what's so special about a picture?" I finished some work, perhaps made a cup of coffee or two, before I made my way over. Well, I was wrong. I've never been to The Colosseum, but I was blown away by how much it managed to make me feel like I was there. Those who have been there assured me that it looked exactly as advertised in the goggles. So do others share this enthusiasm for panoramas? Who's doing something about it? And when can I travel the world on my couch?

The excitement

Panoramas can be static pictures or videos, but they all share one goal: to immerse you in a real-world location. The Colosseum panorama mentioned above is a still, and although being blown away by it doesn't mean I won't ever pony up for a ticket to Rome, we found that donning a headset and seeing a location for the first time is heady. When next I saw panoramic videos, I thought "this is something special."

I didn't know how special it'd be until we brought a demo of our technology, which could play panoramic videos by then, to meetups. Word of our demo would spread, and a lineup would form throughout the night. If the attendees didn't start out seeking the panoramas, they came away pleasantly surprised. Many of them told us that they saw the possibilities of VR clearly through these experiences.

Panoramas' virtues are extolled by none other than the CTO of Oculus VR, John Carmack:

@ntheweird the hard core gaming crowd just does not understand how important pano photos and videos are going to be for VR

— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) December 20, 2014

It is not uncommon to see VR community discussions about panoramas branch into how they will help mainstream adaptation of VR, such as this thread on reddit. It also comes up from time to time as VR enthusiasts tweet about their favourite 360 experiences.

So are people capturing their wing suit adventures? And how are they doing it?

Capturing the real world

At its most basic level, creating a panorama means capturing a scene at multiple angles - front, back, left, right, as well as top and bottom if you want a full spherical look - then stitching them together. The panorama sharing site 360Cities has a basic tutorial on how to create panoramic photos, and recommendations of stitching software such as PTGui.

360-degree spherical panorama of The Colosseum, in Cubic format. (By "Humus", CC BY 3.0, http://www.humus.name/index.php?page=Textures&ID=109)
360-degree spherical panorama of The Colosseum, in Cubic format. (By "Humus", CC BY 3.0, http://www.humus.name/index.php?page=Textures&ID=109)

Video panoramas are much the same. Since you have to record every angle of the scene simultaneously though, a mount that holds multiple cameras - such as those by 360Heroes or Freedom360 - is needed. A stitching software capable of processing videos, such as Kolor or VideoStitch, is also needed.

For those of us who are looking for 1-click solutions (or close to it anyway), there are consumer-grade 360-degree cameras that are available for purchase or preorder:

Samsung is going to come out with Project Beyond, which is capable of capturing stereoscopic spherical panoramas. This means the footage it captures will have depth, so the viewer feels as if s/he is in the same 3-dimensional space as the location on video.

So this is all fine and good, but how do I see these videos in a VR headset? And how do I share my tour of The Louvre in its full spherical glory?

The cat videos are due in VR

Popular panorama viewers for VR include: LiveViewRift, MaxVR, and VRPlayer. They are standalone applications you can download to view a panorama that exists locally on your computer.

Some panorama sites, such as airpano.com, has support for the Oculus Rift, which means you can plug the headset in and view the site's panoramas straight from the browser. 360Cities, mentioned above, has Google Cardboard support for their panoramas. Overall, it is currently up to the individual panorama sites to implement VR support.

If you'd like to share a panorama, Samsung's "Milk VR" service allows you to upload videos for view on the Gear VR headset, provided you are allowed to do so by Samsung. There are also a couple companies, vcemo and vyuu, who are trying to build the "YouTube of VR".

Or, there is YouTube itself. Google announced that YouTube will support 360-degree videos "soon". In fact, 360-degree camera manufacturer Giroptic has confirmed that YouTube will be compatible with their camera upon launch, in the first quarter of 2015.

What panoramas would you like to see in VR? Would cats be the stars of VR videos as well?

Feature Image Credit: The Colosseum, Rome, Italy, ca. 1896 6782 P.Z. Roma, esterno del Coloseo. Photochrom print by Photoglob Zürich, between 1890 and 1900. From the Photochrom Prints Collection at the Library of Congress Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trialsanderrors/4827330638/