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VR Terminology: a primer

Virtual reality and 360-degree video are very new technologies, at least to the general public. So it’s no surprise that people aren’t all that familiar with the terminology of these mediums. Heck, even in the industry the terminology sometimes varies and I’m sure terms will continue to evolve as the technology does. That said, it can be hard to have clear conversations with clients because of this terminology confusion (particularly between the terms “3D” and “360 video”) so I thought I would write a blog post to outline some of the terminology.

Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) is an experience in which you shut out the real world and are transported to a new place via technology. Currently that technology primarily consists of head-mounted displays (or HMDs). In the future, it may be contact lenses and/or a whole host of other technologies.

This is different than augmented reality (AR), which overlays content onto the real world. I'm not going to go more into depth on this because I do VR, not AR, but hopefully you get some sense of the difference.

Virtual reality content currently coming out seems to be primarily in two categories: 360° video (aka immersive video), which can include animation, and immersive games. As the medium evolves, these two things may converge and overlap - who knows, maybe eventually we’ll just call them immersives or something.

What is the difference between VR and 360 video?

VR can be many things besides just 360 video, so 360° video is just one subset of VR. 360 video is definitely best viewed as VR, in immersive headsets. However, 360° video doesn’t have to be VR, it can also just play on browsers or on mobile devices. The difference between 360° video and what I’ll call traditional video is that you can look all around in the video rather than only seeing the frame that the director chose to show you.

2D vs 3D

Talking about 360° video vs traditional video is where the conversation seems to often get confused. Many people will refer to traditional video as 2D video and 360° video as 3D video but this is not correct and can confuse the scope of the project because both traditional and 360° video can be 2D or 3D.

3D video (also called stereoscopic video) is actually two videos - one for each eye, usually shot side by side, which allows you to see depth, as you would see in the real world. When you go to a 3D movie in theaters, the glasses you wear decode the two signals and send them to the proper eye. 2D video (also called monoscopic) simply means it is just one video and your eyes aren’t seeing different angles so you don’t see as much depth. Most of the video you watch, whether it be in movie theaters, on TV, or on mobile devices, is 2D.

Just as with traditional video, 360° video can be both 2D and 3D, which is why I try to use monoscopic and stereoscopic when talking about 360° video as much as possible. 2D 360° video means both eyes are getting the same feed in a headset, and 3D 360° video mean as each eye in the headset is playing slightly different videos. Again, that creates more of a sense of depth. However, at least currently, there are trade offs to doing 3D 360, but I'll get to that in a bit.

It’s important in conversations about a project to use the terminology properly because the process and cost of a 2D 360 video vs a 3D 360 video are very different and also just so that both sides are clear on what the client wants for the finished product.

As a general rule, I don't yet recommend 3D 360 to my clients because the technology for 3D 360 video isn’t good enough. For one thing the cameras are clunky, the stitching becomes even harder, and doing anything like tilting your head breaks the 3D anyway. But even more importantly, you cut in half the resolution of the output because you have to fit two eyes of information into the same 4K-or-less video players that are currently available. As it is, wrapping 4K resolution around a full sphere isn’t great in terms of resolution of what your eye is seeing, so halving that is far from ideal. Thus I stick to 2D 360 video for now, until the technology improves.

So there you have it. Hopefully this helped clarify some terms for you. And as always, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like a demo.


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