In the last several years, we’ve seen the emergence of interactive panoramic video as a novel platform for online storytelling. Using multi-camera rigs or curved mirrors, producers have captured full, 360° angles of view, which viewers can explore by clicking and dragging inside a player on the web or a smartphone.
So far, the technology has been confined to high-budget music videos and ad campaigns — it’s been used to promote everything from fine writing instruments to luxury sports cars to helicopter fishing adventures — but new tools are about to put panoramic video in the hands of anyone with an iPhone.
Beginnings of Panorama
Long before there was interactive video, 18th-Century painter Robert Barker captivated audiences with wide-angle views of Edinburgh, coining the term panorama to describe them.
Now, with the advent of image-processing software, it’s become easy and inexpensive to stitch together panoramas from multiple shots from any camera. On today’s smartphones, apps such as Occipital’s 360 Panorama and Photaf allow the users of iPhones or Android phones to simply turn in a circle to record and share a complete panoramic view.
Though the end product is a single image, it’s really a composite of discrete moments. Each time you snap a shot and move the camera, time has passed, and by the time you finish spinning around to capture the whole scene, it’s almost certain something has moved or changed. In order to capture the frame rates necessary for moving pictures, a completely different mechanism is needed.
At the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, Raoul Grimoin-Sanson demonstrated his Cinéorama 360° film projection system to simulate a hot-air balloon ride. He used a synchronized 10-camera rig and projected the resulting films in a full circle using 10 projectors. Some 50-odd years later, Disney’s Circle-Vision 360 used a similar nine-projector system to take American theme park audiences on patriotic aerial adventures.
Fast forward to the 1990s. In 1994, Immersive Media introduced an 11-camera rig, not unlike its multi-camera precursors, to record interactive panoramic video for the nascent World Wide Web. Their technology has since improved and their client base has expanded. Immersive Media has provided panorama-making tools to Google (for its Google Maps Street View), the U.S. Army, Red Bull, Armani and Porsche, among others. The company has used its 360° devices to broadcast NHL games and the Oscars.
Panoramic Filmmakers Get Creative
Now, filmmakers, documentarians and journalists are getting their hands on the technology and making entertaining and informative videos. Tim Nackashi of OK Go fame directed a 360° music video for former Shudder To Think head Craig Wedren. Robot-punk icons Devo produced an interactive music video for the song “What We Do” that also allows fans to click to buy merchandise. (Watch the Devo video below.)
On the journalistic front, CNN used Immersive Media’s technology to record a series of short 360° vignettes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, allowing viewers to survey the aftermath themselves. NorthStudio360 showed the potential of 360° video for breaking news coverage when it filmed vandalism at the 2011 Vancouver riots following the hometown Canucks’ loss to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup this past June.
Documentarians are starting to see the potential of this technology as well. One of the first 360° documentary projects is the National Film Board of Canada’s HIGHRISE: Out My Window, an International Digital Emmy-winning nonfiction work that tells the stories of high-rise dwellers around the globe.
Inexpensive Options for Filmmakers
Most of the projects mentioned so far use high-end multi-camera systems. However, cheaper options for recording 360° video are available for independent filmmakers. GoPano Plus and PanoPro are two mirrored-lens attachments for a traditional DSLR camera. Some handy DIY’ers have fashioned their own units on the cheap too.
If you’re a filmmaker wanting to experiment with panoramic video, new tools are coming. This year, two new pocket-sized devices will take advantage of the iPhone 4’s high-resolution camera to record 360° panoramic video on the go. The startups Kogeto and EyeSee360 each raised more than $100,000 on Kickstarter and say they’ll be shipping 360° lens attachments for Apple’s phone in the next few months.
(The $79 Kogeto Dot 360° video attachment for iPhone begins shipping in September, and is available now for pre-order, while EyeSee360’s $699 $80-ish GoPano Micro doesn’t yet have a shipping date, but you can sign up to be notified when it’s ready.)
Have you come across any other interesting 360° documentary projects? Are you working on one now? Do you think panoramic video is a gimmick or a potential game changer? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments below or on Twitter @povdocs (use the hashtag #360movies).