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Friday, November 20, 2015

BAM Virtual Reality: our first 360° video

By Ben Cohen

Today BAM launched its first-ever virtual reality video. Not all guinea pigs can climb a rope and hang upside down while doing splits, so we’re feeling pretty lucky that members of the Australian cirque troupe Circa let us aim our virtual reality camera at them during their run at BAM earlier this month.

Press play to be transported to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House stage, and experience what it’s like to warm up with these incredible acrobats.

We have been experimenting with a new 360-degree camera rig for several months and when we shot this video a few weeks ago, there wasn’t yet a good way to share this kind of immersive content with our audience. That changed nearly overnight when YouTube launched support for Google Cardboard and VR headsets. Facebook added native 360-degree video support a few days later. We don't have to keep this experiment to ourselves any longer!

(scroll to the end of this post for viewing instructions)

Over the past several months, learning how to make this content provided an exciting space for us to play, experiment, and think differently about video and live performance, about our audience, and about our spaces at BAM.

Right now virtual reality is going through a rapid phase of experimentation. The conditions are totally different than when the technology struggled to take off many times over the past several decades. A lot has changed, but perhaps the most significant shift is now nearly everyone is carrying a virtual reality player.

Cameras are becoming more accessible as Facebook, Google, Samsung, GoPro, and all the major electronics manufacturers are investing billions of dollars to develop newer and simpler products for creators and audiences. Right now the process of making a virtual reality video is no small task. In our case, we have to stitch six different videos from six cameras together to create the 360-degree panorama. It’s not easy, especially when a long rope is whipping back and forth from one shot to the next (to see what I mean, be sure to look up in the Circa video).

Ben Katz  (Video Production Manager) checks the wifi settings on the six-camera virtual reality rig in front of BAM

One of the strangest parts about creating a virtual reality video is that most cameras (including ours) can’t provide a preview of the image while shooting. Instead of looking through a viewfinder or a monitor, we set the camera, press record, and walk away—far away—so we are not seen in the shot. We can’t know exactly what we captured until hours later after all the footage is loaded, stitched together on the computer, and played back for the first time in the edit studio. It’s a magical moment to see it all come together.

I used Kolor Autopano Giga software to stitch the 360-degree video together.

The virtual reality camera rig produces several individual video files that overlap. To create the immersive panoramic image in the final video, the images are “stitched” together in a multi-step process. Everything has to go perfectly for this to work. Timing between the cameras must be synced, image resolutions and frame rates have to match, and of course there can’t be any blind spots or gaps between the field of view of the cameras. It’s a little bit like launching a rocket—one error and the whole thing comes crashing down.

The technology is far from perfect yet. You might notice some overlapping or blurry images in 360-degree virtual reality videos. Even the slightest offset of a camera by a few millimeters will cause a shift of perspective that can make stitching a clean panorama nearly impossible. Without precise control of the environment and action surrounding the camera, these small aberrations appear to be par for the course right now among documentary style 360-degree video. The challenge is even greater when you’re filming a dozen acrobats flipping and tumbling in circles.

A common reaction to a documentary-style virtual reality video is what appears to be low resolution playback. This can be attributed to slow internet connection as YouTube will "dumb down" the resolution to favor the smoothest playback possible (the higher the resolution, the more bytes per second you have to stream). The full panorama of our 360-degree video is “Ultra High Definition,” or 3840 x 2160 pixels. However, when you view the video in a virtual reality player like YouTube 360 or on Facebook, you are essentially viewing the image through a window and only seeing a fraction of the full panorama. That smaller image is then blown up to fit the resolution of your phone or screen. The result is that you are seeing a lower resolution image than you may be accustomed to. This should be solved as camera resolutions advance and screens have greater pixel density. The "reality" in virtual reality will only get better and inevitably we may have a really good reason to want higher resolution screens on our phones.

Despite these current limitations of the technology, storytelling in virtual reality poses exciting new frontiers for creators to connect with audiences. The multi-sensory experience and physicality of the medium means the audience is more captive than traditional screen viewing. The connection between the creator and the audience feels more direct while viewing.

Right now, it's all about experimentation. The technology to create and share 360-degree video is rapidly improving and the potential for virtual reality storytelling is exciting. Will this be a major shift in how we connect, communicate, and tell stories, or will it just be a fad like 3D TVs? Perhaps the difference here is that we can’t make a 3D TV out of cardboard.

For now, I’m excited to say that we are looking for more opportunities to create and share unique BAM 360-degree videos. Stay tuned for more BAM Virtual Reality in the months to come—be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on Facebook to be the first to know.

Note the VR rig in the bottom right-hand corner

Viewing Instructions

If you’re new to VR, here are tips to get started.

The video can be viewed on any device—a desktop browser (Chrome, Safari, etc.), a mobile device with Android or iOS, and a VR headset like Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR.

On a mobile device: load the video in YouTube or Facebook in the native application (not in a browser). Move your phone up, down, left or right to experience the 360-degree view of the Howard Gilman Opera House.

On Google Cardboard and Oculus VR headsets (ie. Samsung Gear VR): currently, only the YouTube app on Android devices is supported for Cardboard viewing. Load the video into YouTube and a Cardboard icon will appear in the bottom right of the screen. Press the Cardboard icon and place the phone into your headset. Look anywhere you want to enjoy the immersive video experience.


BAM Executive Producer Joseph V. Melillo tries out Google Cardboard for the first time.

Ben Cohen is the Associate Director of Video at BAM.


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