Facebook Is Ushering In the Age of Social Virtual Reality With Spherical Videos

Maybe this is what it will take to finally get your grandparents into VR.

Mar 25 2015, 10:30pm

​Image: Facebook

​At Facebook's annual developers conference in San Francisco, Mark Zuckerberg announced the company's first step towards social virtual reality—and the future, according to Facebook, is spherical.

In a video demonstration on stage, Facebook presented footage shot by a multiple camera rig towering high above a picturesque Mediterranean town. The footage captured was stitched together to create a spherical video that can be experienced in 3D.

When these videos start appearing in your Facebook News Feed, you'll be able to look in whatever direction you'd like with the click of a mouse. But the ideal experience, supposedly, is wearing a virtual reality headset, and just looking around the space by moving your head.

So social! Image: Emanuel Maiberg

After the keynote presentation, I headed over to the Festival building at Fort Mason Center, where Facebook had different demos and information booths. The "Teleportation Station"—which Zuckerberg admitted on stage was a bit of a comical exaggeration—was a little roped-off area where Facebook and Oculus representatives helped me into Samsung's Gear VR. It's a virtual reality headset that uses a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone as its display.

It was similar to past VR demos I've experienced, with one big difference. Instead of rendering some fantastical, video game-like 3D environment, the headset was streaming a live spherical video feed from what looked like Hacker Square in Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters.

Rather than use a mouse to change the viewing angle, I could simply look around and see everything there was to see (which was not much). When I looked down I saw that I was a tripod. When I looked behind me, I saw the poor Facebook employee who was left out in the sun to babysit the expensive equipment. Hacker Square isn't some bustling hub of activity.

In short, it worked—though, all the issues I have with VR persist (namely the "screendoor effect" which makes you feel like your eyes are very close to the screen).​

Well, hard to argue with that. Image: Facebook

The way that Zuckerberg explains it, virtual reality is the next logical step for Facebook. "If you look back at Facebook five years ago, most of the content that people shared was text," Zuckerberg said. "Now, it's photos. If you fast forward five years it's going to be video, and if you look even further beyond that, it's probably going to be more immersive content like VR and AR."

Probably? I don't know. It's hard to argue with a genius billionaire, especially when there's a giant graphic behind him reiterating his argument, pointing ever upwards to richer and richer media.

On the other hand, YouTube already supports 360 degree videos, which are not all that different, and they're not exactly setting the world on fire. Maybe virtual reality will improve and maybe Facebook will have more luck and maybe your grandparents will be really into putting on a headset and being transported into your living room via a direct feed from up to 24 cameras.

But like everything with virtual reality thus far, "maybe" is the operative word.