VR headsets like the Oculus Rift can drop you anywhere from the edge of a comic-book skyscraper to a dinosaur-infested swamp, but how do we capture real-life experiences for VR? The answer is easy enough: 360-degree 3D video.
Shooting video in every direction at once from multiple viewpoints is really, really tricky, however. The rigs to do it right cost enough to make even James Cameron think twice. But at Google’s I/O developer conference in San Francisco on Thursday, the company introduced Jump, a new solution that may make it possible for anyone to shoot 3D panoramic video in the near future. And we got to try out the engulfing results.
It makes Google an early leader in the field of shoot-it-yourself VR tourism.
The first videos from Jump were shot on a special 3D-printed rig developed by GoPro in collaboration with Google. Sixteen cameras fan out on a tripod-mounted wheel that looks like a nightmare from some futuristic surveillance state. Right now, that video gets fed into Google’s proprietary algorithm, which both weaves 16 individual feeds into one panorama and generates stereoscopic viewpoints for the illusion of 3D. You can only watch it, at the moment, on an Android phone wrapped in Google’s functional but inelegant Cardboard 3D viewer.
Donning this clunky headset for the first demo, the limitations of the medium are immediately apparent: The images are grainy and pixelated. The field of view is narrow. Moving your head too much ruins the illusion. But sure enough, this is true 3D video. You can move your head in any direction and witness life unfold around you, in 3D, as if you were there.
In one demo, a hiker treks his way up a glacier in the foreground while distant mountains wrap around you in every direction. In another, waves wash up on a black volcanic beach, making you want to lift your feet before the frigid waters soak your shoes. In the best, a custom motorcycle builder bangs away on his latest creation while you peer around his cluttered shop, unnoticed.
Like all 360-degree video, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re missing out on something by taking in only one view. This horse is poking its head out of a stall in front of me, but is there another horse behind me? A rancher fitting horseshoes? An epic view of Montana’s sprawling sky?! Oh, no. Just more barn.
When the camera moves, as it does in one demo shot inside a climbing gondola or in another set on the deck of a ferry motoring into port, it’s possible to lose your balance or orientation for a split second. But Oculus Rift this is not. You have to want to believe the illusion to lose yourself in it, and many little details will nudge you out of it whether you want them to or not. Moving your head too quickly causes a noticeable judder as you’re ratcheting between a number of finite viewpoints, rather than smoothly shifting your view in 3D. And it lags. Looking down shows not feet on a beach, but an amorphous circular blur from an absence of camera footage. Without head tracking, your viewpoint is essentially fixed; you can rotate in any direction but not lean or crouch to take a closer look at something, as you can on the latest Rift, or Microsoft’s HoloLens.
Donning this clunky headset for the first demo, the limitations of the medium are immediately apparent:
None of this is enough to defeat Google’s triumph here: This footage was captured from gear that costs less than a compact car – about $8,000 worth of GoPro Hero 4 Black cameras, plus a 3D-printed rig to bind them all together. Along with its commitment to put this footage on YouTube, that makes Google an early leader in the field of shoot-it-yourself VR tourism. That’s not insignificant, when you consider that other VR platforms, like Oculus, are still figuring out what users will actually want to watch or play on them. Games offer imagined 3D worlds; Google is offering the real thing.
Will you take a virtual tour of Hawaii this time next year rather than hopping a plane to see it for yourself? Not likely. The experience still feels inauthentic, and the cameras cost more than the entire trip. But as the cost comes down, the quality goes up, and the entire experience migrates to more immersive platforms like Oculus, you had better believe VR vacations are around the corner.
I’ll take mine from an aerial drone, please.