The crappy 360-degree videos you’re seeing on Facebook are giving virtual reality a bad name

What’s he really looking at?
What’s he really looking at?
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Many are declaring 2016 to be the year of virtual reality. There are multiple virtual reality headsets rolling out this year, and Samsung gave away its Gear VR headset to anyone that preordered its newest smartphones. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, which owns VR company Oculus, thinks we’ll all be wearing VR headsets at some point in the future. Facebook last week announced a 17-camera rig for shooting immersive video.

But not everything you can watch on a virtual reality headset is virtual reality. Last week, a surgeon in the UK broadcast was heralded by many media outlets as “the first VR surgery,” because a camera array that captured a 360-degree view of the operating room was being livestreamed on YouTube. Although a rather useful exercise for medical students around the world, there wasn’t anything about it that made it “virtual reality.” It was just real life, in real time, with a large field of view, that you could look at through a Google Cardboard. It’s not like you could peer down into the surgery that was going on—in reality, you were just watching a few surgeons do something to a person while a bunch of other doctors milled around an operating room. You couldn’t walk around the room, pick up instruments, or interact with anything. It was just reality, 360 degrees of it, and videos like it may end up turning people off what they believe to be virtual reality content.

Both Facebook and YouTube now allow anyone to upload 360-degree videos to their platforms. That means if you have a Cardboard, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, or anything else that could be construed as a virtual reality headset, you can watch immersive videos on your device. But that doesn’t make them virtual reality, seeing as a video of someone surfing or playing soccer in 360-degree video isn’t virtual—it really happened!—so that’s really just reality.

Yesterday, Google announced that it would begin supporting live-stream 360-degree videos, meaning the next concert or political debate you watch live on YouTube could be a lot more than some people inside a rectangle. But, as The Verge’s Ben Popper noted, these sorts of videos should just be the “gateway drug” to VR content. Virtual reality content will not be based in video of real life, but rather simulations that you can interact with, walk around, and generally take part in. Watching a video that you can move around with your phone is not quite the same thing.

“For people in VR, there is a little bit of annoyance about it, like, let’s clearly define these two things,” Miles Perkins, who works in communications for VR production firm Jaunt, told The Verge. ”There are a lot of people who experience 360 video and assume its VR, and it so isn’t.”

We’re just at the beginning of what virtual reality could become. People who don’t consider themselves gamers are already losing themselves in VR games. It’s bringing others to tears. And pixellated, shaky videos of crazy stunts or videos with linear narratives that don’t add to the viewer’s experience by being in 360 degrees, may well put people off the already awkward experience if the two concepts continue to be conflated. “The real question is, is it a gimmick?” Dan Rayburn, a digital media analyst at Frost & Sullivan, told The Verge. “Will people feel immersed or will they be annoyed to see the back of the performer’s head? I think a lot of people do it once and think, oh cool, and then never come back.”

Go find an early adopter that’s managed to snag an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive. Ask them to fire up a game that they’ve enjoyed—maybe something insane like EVE:Valkyrie or something as simple as painting, even something like Temple Run on a Gear VR—and you’ll see why we need to differentiate between mere 360-degree videos, and actual virtual reality.

Just look at how real hoverboards have been disgraced by ‘hoverboards’ that are really glorified scooters.