360 video and VR: 3 things every business should know

Investors put $1.1bn (£0.8bn) into virtual and augmented reality technologies in the first two months of 2016 — more than the industry received in all of 2015. This is not the 80s, and VR is not a fad. It's here to stay.

And from virtual conditions testing at Ford Motors to immersive real estate tours at Sotheby's, it's much more than just a toy for consumers to play with. It's a whole new form of communication that's changing the way we do business.

'I can see how it would work for Ford, but for my business...' Wait. I know you might be sceptical. VR seems expensive, obscure, and hard. It might seem like a waste of time. But it's none of those — here are the three reasons that you need to be looking at VR no matter what industry your business is in.

360 video and VR aren't the same thing

It's still a little hard for most businesses to imagine how full, immersive VR could be relevant to what they do. But the use case gets a lot clearer when you start talking about 360-degree video.

360 video simply means extending the range of a traditional video to fill the entire visual frame: above, below, and all around. It's a perfect sphere of footage. Watch a 360 video through a £15 Google Cardboard headset, and you can physically turn around to change your perspective on whatever you're watching.

That's what the New York Times is doing with their VR series: putting you in the middle of a devastatingly real refugee camp, for instance, or next to Donald Trump's supporters at a raucous, fiery campaign rally.

What 360 video does is transport the viewer somewhere they can't otherwise be. Imagine strapping on a headset and instantly being transported to your board room, looking from right to left and seeing your colleagues conversing and debating — as if you were really there.

Imagine remotely walking a client through a mock-up but with the full dimensions and scale of your product intact, not having to rely on inference and description to get your point across.

This new world of immersive, spherical video is very much here.

360 video is becoming a new medium for marketing

A big use for 360 video, ever since Facebook started supporting the format last September, has been brand advertising. The New Orleans Saints used it to bring viewers into the team's pre-game run through the tunnel, complete with jets of smoke, deafening crowd noise and a palpable sense of excitement.

GoPro brought people surfing off Tahiti, strapping cameras to surfers Anthony Walsh and Matahi Drollet as they navigated massive waves in an idyllic island landscape.

But 360 video is also finding a niche in corporate communication, education, and training. At St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, 360 video is being used to bring residents into the operating theatre — don't click if you're queasy — virtually. In manufacturing, 360 video turns safety training and product demonstrations into ultra-realistic affairs that can eliminate the need for many in-person meetings.

360 video's internal and B2B uses may be less visible and less public, but they are a clear way for many businesses to reduce costs while improving communication and training.

It's easier to make 360 videos than you think

One reason you probably haven't seen many 360 videos out and about is because it's traditionally been very difficult to get it right. We wrote a guide when we first did it at Wistia: it involved buying a handful of GoPros, rigging them together, and then stitching each piece of footage together with special software. It was a pain.

But things are getting a lot easier. With £300, you can get yourself a Ricoh Theta 360 camera that will shoot, stitch, and take care of all the complexities involved in 360 video right out of the box.

As the field matures, it's a good bet that the range of 360 cameras will widen further and that prices will go down. But maybe the most exciting place we should look for 360 capability to emerge is in the smartphones in our pockets.

The vast majority of new smartphones now come with both rear-facing and front-facing cameras. Soon, that front-facing camera most likely won't just be for selfies anymore — it'll be the critical component of a built-in 360 video feature.

With the rise of this medium and the double cameras inherent to smartphones, an 'Instagram for VR' is inevitable. With it, the power to create stunning, immersive recordings will become available to almost all of us.

Chris Savage, CEO and Co-Founder at Wistia

Image Credit: Kentoh / Shutterstock