Democratizing VR: Why It Starts With 360 Photos

Until recently, 360 photography has not been considered virtual reality, because not all 360 images and videos work inside a VR headset, and 360 photos are non-interactive by default. This is changing as industry leaders take action: Facebook and Oculus support 360 photos and YouTube and Facebook 360 videos, Samsung and Microsoft introduce consumer-facing camera models and apps, and Google Street View expands indoors. The new immersive medium deserves more attention. How are people using it?

Five uses cases of 360 photos in VR 

Four weeks ago we invited a group of educators and journalists to explore how image annotation can be used in 360 storytelling, and how virtual reality photos can add value to news and education. Out of more than a hundred examples, I've picked five that demonstrate the different ways in which 360 images can mediate an participatory experience of a place that one wants to share with another.

1) Virtual walks:  A tour in the Valley Garden, Southampton, UK


Sara Fielding from the University of Southampton created a virtual tour of Valley Gardens. This example uses ten 360 images that are connected with transitional links positioned on actual paths visible in the image. The viewer can choose their way and explore the garden going from one space to another. Along the way, there are image and video annotations highlighting details that provide informational closeup images and embedded YouTube videos of the garden’s plants and animals.

2) Lessons as layers: A history lesson of Alamo, Texas 

Teacher Laura Turner Moore converts a single 360 image of Alamo in Texas into a history lesson about the Mexican–American War of 1846–48. By taking a historical perspective to an existing physical location, Laura layers a structured learning experience with numbered annotations that indicate which order the viewer should digest the additional information.

Both the garden tour and the Alamo lesson are examples of a local expert inviting the viewer to visit a specific place and learn something new. The annotations and the ambient sounds in the background add the physical sense of sound to a set of otherwise plain images of a pretty garden or a place in Texas.

3) Virtual school tours: Eleven student dormitories, California

One of the most popular use cases for 360 photos in education are school tours. Teacher and expert educator Brian Lewis elaborates: "This is a great way to help new students and parents explore your room before school starts. I would email this (photo) link home to students and parents or post on my website so they could feel at home when school starts.” 

In this example, Spanish teacher Richard Bailey and his students literally opened doors to the life of high school students by documenting eleven dormitories with a 360 camera. The tour starts from an image where the teacher is waiving at the classroom door. As you step in and click one of the arrows, the next image takes you inside the classroom where students are standing around the camera. Each student is linked to a 360 photo of their dorm room. As you look around, you can hear the student describing their room in Spanish. The viewer can navigate back to the group image from each individual room.

4) Special access: A studio visit to meet the hosts of a new TV show 

Dinko Cepak, the head of design department at the Croatian Radio Television, uses a single 360 image to bring his audience directly into news studio to meet the hosts of a new TV show. Each anchor is annotated with a video clip of their interview.  

This is a good example of how 360 photos can give us special access to rare places that most of us can only dream of visiting. This could be a rare exhibit at a museum, a hard-to-reach nature location, a lesson inside the human body, or, as NASA recently marveled us with, a trip to Pluto. Special access engages audiences, and takes them on a journey like the Magic School Bus.

5) A moment in another world: On the beach with Walt Whitman 

A literature teacher, Monica Samarra Garrigos, uses two connected 360 images to create a poetry lesson with Walt Whitman. In the first image “Walt in desert” the viewer stands in a desert, and in the second image “Walt on the beach” you are staring a beautiful blue sea on the beach. Both images have eight timeless quotes from Whitman that you can uncover by looking at the embedded icons. The quotes are simple image annotations with black text on a white background.

Unlike in the previous examples, this kind of use case is not about visiting a known physical location, but rather visiting a -- state of mind. The images could be from anywhere. Together with the ambient music, they become the audio-visual dimension of Walt Whitman's poetry, and show how an entirely visual medium such as a 360 image can be used in learning about traditionally non-visual subject like literature. 

From early adopters to followers: approaching the tipping point

360 degree photos introduce a new phase in digital photography, the most popular form of computer-mediated communication today. A quick adoption of the new format among large professional communities such as teachers and journalists can contribute to new ways of communication and learning, and open access to geographically distant or otherwise hard-to-reach locations. When early adopters share the new tools and knowledge in their own networks, content creation for 360 and mobile VR will explode.

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