Can 360 videos be considered Virtual Reality?

Today I want to take part in one of the biggest debates inside the virtual reality ecosystem by trying to give my opinion on the question “Are 360 videos a form of virtual reality?”. This is a question that gets asked a bazillion times in VR communities and there are actually people ready to kill other ones just to have said that they love VR because they love watching 360 videos. There is such a hate towards 360 videos by some kind of VR fanatics that I think that a civil war will pop out because of this.

are 360 videos virtual reality
The great debate

I think that this debate is useful for the VR ecosystem as a fork is useful to eat a soup, because this is the moment when we all have to push VR to its success and not to concentrate on this useless nomenclature matter. So, my answer on a normal day would be this one.

360 videos virtual reality
My exact reaction every time I see someone discussing this topic in online communities (Image by Know Your Meme)

Anyway, since there’s all this interest, I’ll try to give my opinion to help the VR community and I’ll join the war on Captain America’s side.

I think that 360 videos are virtual reality, because:

  1. In the popular Milgram’s Reality-Virtuality continuum, there is no other place where to put this kind of content. Surely they’re not reality since you’re not watching the real world, but you’re just watching a screen. Surely you’re not watching augmented reality or mixed reality content… so the only choice that remains is virtual reality. And no, Milgram has not introduced a separation between “True true VR” and “Yes, it is VR, but not the true VR that I like”;

    are 360 videos virtual reality
    Milgram’s reality-virtuality continuum (Image by Wikipedia)
  2. You have a screen strapped to your face that shows you some world completely unrelated to where you’re in… how would you call that? A potato?
  3. If you make a sphere in Unity and put the VR camera inside it and then build the scene and you watch it through an Oculus Rift, is it VR, true? It is “True true VR”, isn’t it? Ok, now imagine that I put some texture onto the interior of the sphere… it is still VR, right? Well, if I put a video as the texture of the sphere… what should change? Bam! It is VR anyway. So, if you watch a 360 video projected onto a sphere, it is VR;
  4. According to Cambridge dictionary, VR is “a set of images and sounds, produced by a computer, that seem to represent a place or a situation that a person can take part in”. Well, a 360 video is exactly something like that, so it is VR. Do you want to contradict Cambridge?

 So, technically speaking, 360 videos are a form of virtual reality. But why people are prone to say that this is not true? There are mainly four reasons.

are 360 videos virtual reality
A satirical image about 360 videos not being VR (Image by VR Dizzy)

The first one is that 360 videos are made through the recording of reality and not synthesized by a computer, so they’re not a virtual reality created by a computer, but are just a recording of real reality, so they don’t count as virtual reality. I have to admit that this has sense, but I don’t agree. First of all, talking about the opposite case, I still consider Shrek a movie, even if it has been made completely through renderings and doesn’t involve real actors. I can define it “an animation movie” or “a CG movie”, but it’s still a movie. The Lord of the Rings is considered a movie even if it has been made a lot using computer graphics, no one would ever say that “it is a movie, but not a true true movie”. So why should I consider Dear Angelica a VR experience and Ashes To Ashes a non-true-true-VR one? Furthermore, the line between what is recorded from the real world and what is rendered by a computer is very blurred. How do we take in count CG special effects of movies in this equation (see the example of the Lord of The Ring above)? And what about photogrammetry? If I record an environment and create a mesh from it and show it in VR, does it count as VR or not? (it is a recording, but it is rendered at the same time). So Google Earth VR is not VR? And if I create a virtual environment that is perfectly identical to its real counterpart, why it should be different from a recording made by a camera? And what about audio? If a virtual experience has audio recorded from a real actor makes it less real? Even the audio has to be synthetic? To take in count all these variables, we should make the new truetrueVR-notreallyVR continuum, where for every experience we specify how much it adheres to the holy very-VR principles. And then go to a mental hospital. As you can see, the line between what is real and what is virtual is so blurred that it has no sense separating the recordings from what is rendered by a PC.

360 videos vr
This happens when you realize that you can’t completely separate what is recorded and what is not (Image by Know Your Meme)

The second reason is that 360 videos are not interactive. Well, there are various VR experiences that are not interactive, with Dear Angelica and Henry being two great examples. Storytelling experiences are never that much interactive.

The third one is that 360 videos are not always 3D. Nowhere is specified that a virtual reality should have 3 dimensions, in no book, no dictionary, no place. Even Solitaire on my windows PC is some kind of virtual reality game. Super Mario is a great game where we all had fun playing with a 2D virtual reality… do you want to mess with an Italian plumber telling him that his reality is inferior to yours? I also played an awesome game for SteamVR called 4D Toys where you play with some funny geometrical shapes in 4 dimensions! So, what reality is that? If you have 4D is it a super-VR? Dimensions don’t count, baby. Don’t be dimensionally racist.

4d Toys menu virtual reality
Part of the menu of the 4D Toys games, showing you all the 4D shapes you can play with. Which kind of VR is that? (Image by Marc Van Bosh)

The last reason is that Virtual Reality is much more than that. Because while it is true that for most people a 360 video is the entry point for VR (for me actually it has been Tuscany… how many memories…) and while it is true that there are 360 videos that are awesome (for instance Rose Colored), inside a virtual reality headset you can have far better experiences, like shooting robots in Robo Recall, drawing stuff in 3D easily with Google Blocks, having your virtual home and customize it in the new Oculus Home or in Steam VR Home, meeting your friends in BigScreen VR, etc… A virtual reality headset can give us endless possibilities and the fact that some people just think that VR is a Cardboard playing fancy 360 videos makes even me very angry because this way these people can’t understand the value of this awesome tech. So, I understand the pain and I know that feeling… but our feelings can’t decide what a definition is. So, as Minesweeper is a game even if gaming is much more than just playing it as you install the Windows OS, 360 videos are still VR even if VR is much more than that.

social vr bigscreen
Me and my friend Sasha inside BigScreenVR… meeting him has been 1000x awesome than seeing a 360 movie!

So, my opinion is that 360 videos are a form of virtual reality, maybe not the most exciting one, but still an interesting one. And if you want to kill me for this… well, subscribe to my newsletter to get weekly info about how you can do that!

(P.S. If  you haven’t read it yet, read this satirical article on VR Dizzy on the topic!)

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AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I've still not waken up...