Really, it’s just arithmetic. Facebook (as well as YouTube) enabled 360-degree video sharing, and so it follows that the company would find ways to push adoption of the medium. At its F8 conference, Facebook announced the Surround 360 camera, a professional-grade device built to show what one can do with 360-degree video capture.
On stage at F8, Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox explained that creating 360-degree video is, well, difficult. Even once you capture the images, which requires special multi-lens equipment, you have to stitch them together while preserving the fidelity of the images, which is not always so simple. That’s not even taking into account the PC hardware you need to handle all the processes.
The Surround 360 will not solve these challenges, because Facebook didn’t create the device to sell it; instead, it’s a reference design other developers can use to build their own products. Facebook is open sourcing the software and hardware, and the code will be available on Github later this summer.
Cox noted that creating such a camera was a challenge, and the team working on it went through a number of prototypes and much trial and error. For example, he noted, when they used a plastic chassis, they found that the hot sun (not to mention the heat produced by the cameras themselves) warped the case and therefore distorted the images somewhat.
The final iteration, though, is one the team is proud of. It can shoot for two hours and produce fully synced, 3D (360-degree) video at 60fps with an astonishing resolution of 8K per eye. Cox said that very little post production will be required.
In addition to the camera itself, Facebook created the Live API to make it easier to stream live, 360-degree content. (Streamers, start your engines.)
Although Cox didn’t mention the Oculus Rift, the subtext of this 360-degree video effort has to be tied to the Facebook-owned HMD. It is my opinion that user-created content will be key in the adoption of VR. Yes, gaming and professional experiences inside an HMD will be (and are) incredibly compelling, but the potential for sharing your own experiences with friends, loved ones, and in some cases strangers is arguably more important.
For example, we buy expensive cameras so we can capture high-quality images and video of our kids’ childhoods. How much more important will it be to parents to capture their little ones’ moments in 3D? Or consider the current throngs of extreme sports GoPro videos; give me an immersive 360-degree video of an Olympic-quality skier flying off a ski jump, and I’ll give you all of my money for the privilege of watching it.
Of course, average consumers will not be dropping the many thousands of dollars it takes to acquire all of the parts for Facebook Surround 360 camera. But perhaps TV news networks, sports teams and various developers will, and if and when they do, we’ll enter a new era in the already-nascent field of VR.