The Great Semantic Divide: Virtual Reality vs. 360-Degree Video

by Jesse Damiani • August 29th, 2016
Opinion: Why Can't Interactive VR and 360 Video Just Get Along?

Passionate discussion and art are longtime bedfellows—and for good reason. Artists and critics alike tend to care a great deal about their work, and have strong opinions about the language we should use to discuss it. But when impassioned debate tips into bitter argument, divisions are born that potentially hurt all involved parties.

This year, I’ve heard increasingly heated discussion surrounding 360° cinema’s “right” to be called “True VR.” More often than not, what I find is that resentments and negative language are cluttering conversations among those who, in theory, have the same goal: to create amazing new content in amazing new formats, so it seemed like time for an olive branch.

In case all of the above is Greek to you, here are the basics:

360° cinema is live-action video shot on a 360° camera or rig. When a viewer dons a headset to watch a 360° experience, choosing where to look, and feeling immersed in the footage itself, is the extent of possible interaction. The story is set in stone—in theory, nothing the viewer does will change the plot of a given 360° video. Lite interactivity has happened recently with experiences like GONE and VR Noir, but the events are all pre-scripted. You can’t actually influence or change anything, really.

The premise behind the “True VR” purist camp is that 360° cinema lacks the necessary degree of interactivity and depth to create a true virtual reality. In a fully virtual experience, viewer interaction actually impacts the plot of the piece. In this format, VR is volumetric and responsive. Where it involves “live-action” is photo- or videogrammetry—capturing live subjects from many different angles simultaneously to produce a computer-generated replication. Inside the headset, these replications suffer no loss in visual clarity from any angle or vantage point. 360° footage suffers from the shortcomings of a typical camera—something farther away will lack detail, and possibly appear out of focus. You certainly cannot reconstruct an environment from a different vantage point. However it was filmed is how it will be presented.

Moreover, since much of VR is still centered around video game experiences, in “True VR,” artists build characters, objects, and environments in a game engine like Unity or Unreal Engine, which further expands the ability to fracture, branch, and reiterate a narrative. Plot is responsive to (and indeed dependent on) user engagement; participators are granted the chance to interact and explore in a way that 360° video simply does not afford.

Read More: Virtual Reality Still Needs to Find Its Heart

“360 apologists” argue that, though their story experiences may be pre-ordained, the immersive nature of their environments and the realism achieved does cut VR-mustard—what matters is ensuring a seamless sensory environment for viewers to perceive. Though there’ll be plenty of instances where a novice plops down a 360° camera to make an immersive video, in its ideal form, a 360° cinema is conceived with an entire writing and pre-production process akin to film. The success of the story is dependent on an artist’s ability to previsualize the best possible way to showcase their experience in the given environment(s).

Moreover, the apologists claim the argument that 360° video fails to achieve “True” VR is unnecessarily divisive because it stifles creativity within the community.

Gorongosa 360-Degree Cropped Image, PBS

This might seem like a semantic discussion, and in a sense it is, but VR is (finally) departing the realm of novelty for the promised land of mainstream adoption. The language we build for it now will have a direct impact on the growth of these two emerging genres, which can determine how they grow and what they become.

As a pragmatist, I see three problems in this discussion: (1) It is framed as a fight: there are attackers (purists) and attacked (apologists,) (2) There’s a misunderstanding of “genre” and “medium,” (3) There’s disagreement over what constitutes the minimum amount of interactivity to be considered authentic VR.

We can address the first issue quite easily by changing the language we use. Instead of “True VR,” I propose we call it “Responsive VR.” This term honors the form’s unique capabilities without inherently indicting the validity of 360° cinema’s place alongside it. It is also broad enough to include the spectrum from active gaming to invisible interactivity.

3. Nola_360_web

As to the second issue, what if instead of talking about the ways these are different mediums we talked about the ways they are different genres within the same medium. I don’t criticize a comedy for not being a documentary. Why not do the same in this case? That way we could take a more level-headed look at their differences while simultaneously honoring their many commonalities.

Because ultimately, they are the same medium. In the “Family Tree of Immersive Media,” they are both virtual realities—simulated environments altogether different than the one we are physically inhabiting. They’re even viewed using the same hardware.

So I personally propose a new “Family Tree of Immersive Media” that looks like this:

FamilyTree_Upload_white (1)

You might say to yourself, “Why do taxonomies matter? Just make what you want!” And of course there’s truth to that, but the language and hierarchies we use to discuss media can actually change their development.

An example I’d pull from history is television, which for decades was treated and spoken of as an inferior form to film. Over time, this determined what audiences expected from TV, and this created a feedback loop; television networks catered to audience expectations, which in turn meant that much of TV actually did become frivolous, escapist, or passing in nature—the ambitious artists who might have been able to produce cutting-edge work were often rejected.

Community Download: Should 360 Videos Be Considered “Real” VR?

It took decades for these artists to showcase their work in television. Of course, now we see that television is actually a great home for “high” art—it’s home to some of the most thorough visual narrative emerging from the Western world. Since VR is such an exciting new medium, let’s not silo any group into being somehow “lesser.” Why not make space for everybody to create the most amazing art possible in whatever format they want?

The interactivity issue is much more complicated. Determining a baseline level of interactivity to be considered “authentic” virtual reality is not only impossible, it’s nearsighted to bother trying. Gray areas are already emerging on the spectrum between 360° cinema and Responsive VR, and this will only become truer as time passes. Why draw boundaries between genres in a medium designed to converge and bring together? Let’s leave ample space for everybody in our family tree.


Are 360° Cinema and Responsive VR different? Absolutely. Is either superior to the other? Absolutely not. The goal for all of us should be to find ways to use this new technology to make the newest, coolest, most innovative work we possibly can. Let’s enable each other to explore this territory to its fullest. Nobody has to be on the losing end of this revolution.

Jesse is a freelance writer with work appearing in publications such as The Huffington Post and IndieWire. Follow him on Twitter: @JesseDamiani.

Featured Image: Samsung

Tagged with: , , , ,

What's your reaction?
  • Tako Schotanus

    I can accept 360º video as VR if, and only if, it’s at least stereo (and therefore has depth). If it’s just a normal 2D video that happens to be 360º then no, sorry, to me that’s not VR. So in my opinion your taxonomical tree is missing that distinction in the “360 Cinema” bubble.

    • Nukemarine

      So people that are blind in one or both eyes can never experience VR in your opinion?

      • Tako Schotanus

        People that are blind in one eye still have depth perception because of parallax, VR is still great for them. But a video that is flat will never have depth, you’ll always feel like sitting in a dome with a movie being projected on the walls. To me that’s not VR, movies theaters like that have existed for many years and nobody ever called them VR. That they’re shown in a headset instead of being displayed on a dome doesn’t change that.

        • 360 video is just glorified QTVR (quick time vr) from the 1990s. Glorified VR because now you’re watching qtvr in an HMD.
          That’s how I explain it to Ad agencies so they don’t make the same mistakes when hiring a prodco to do “VR” adverts.
          At minimum to qualify for the VR moniker, ‘video based VR’ as you’ve rightly said, it should be stereoscopic and reproduce the ‘depth channel’ of the recorded scene, when viewed.

  • Questionin

    The 360° videos, even in mono, are closer to the reality that I have experienced my entire life than anything generated by a computer. The idea that something with, frankly, graphics that look to have arrived from the late 90’s is closer to “reality” is ridiculous.

  • Carolyn Henry

    “Is either superior to the other? Absolutely not.” I think this is a good point and possibly cutting to one of the deeper fears when people engage in this argument. People want to feel valued and know that what they’re doing matters. Both have value, with no one being “on the losing end” like you said. 🙂

  • aaronspence

    This is a good argument on the VR topic which I heartily agree with. The arguments (discussions) around naming conventions for VR/360, what is and is not VR/360/Immersive etc, have been going on pretty much since Apple introduced QTVR (QuickTime Virtual Reality) back in 1994. I’m not sure they will ever conclude 🙂

  • stickleZ

    if a (mono) 360 video is called VR, then you have to call every 3d videogame game (Wolfenstein and on) with free look also VR.

    What makes a 2D 360 video more VR than a 3D game on a flat monitor?

    Basically everything is a virtual reality and term is meaningless . If you can have an identical perceptual experience on flat monitor vs HMD then it isn’t VR .

    Agree w/ Tako on thread- Virtual reality is defined by percieving actual depth in an experience. Stereo viewing is the MVP of what can be defined a VR experience

    • Nukemarine

      Having played Doom and Quake ported to VR, I’m ok with calling such titles VR. Hell, I’ve played plenty of games designed for flat 2D monitor that look AMAZING when viewed through the headmounted displays. Remember VR is virtual reality. Reality can take the shape of a point view from a single location. People with vision in one eye would call 2D vision reality. Hell, for those that are blind, reality can take shape of sound only.

      • Tako Schotanus

        > People with vision in one eye would call 2D vision reality

        You’ve repeated this a couple of times now, but you’re mistaken in thinking that people with one eye can’t see depth. Depth perception is mostly a function of the brain, having two eyes “just” helps.

  • Kalle

    360 2D video can only be called VR by people who only have one eye. Depth is everything!

    • Nukemarine

      Past 20 meters you cannot really distinguish depth via eye spacing. At that point it requires parallax information by moving the head or taking in depth cues which the brain is pretty good at doing. So yeah, for distant objects 2D 360 is fine. It’s a big reason that the skybox in many VR games are in 2D.

      • Tako Schotanus

        Those distances are pretty large though, at closer distances the brains is very good at distinguishing minute differences and assigning depth to that. So unless you’re only shooting vistas on top of a mountain you will always have details closeby that will immediately show the lack of depth.
        In my experience (I have the Rift DK1, DK2, CV1, Vive and Gear headsets) people really like the 360 2D photos and videos (as long as they’re not streamed) up to the point that you introduce them to the 3D versions and *that* is when they really go “wooooow!!!” and reach out and try to touch and grab things. *That* for me is the moment they experience “True VR”.

  • VRAR Interactive

    On a Malibu beach I shot a 360 video, with the birds flying around the camera. One bird walked up and stared directly at it. Then after editing it I loaded it onto a Gear VR setup, and handed it with headphones to several people to try. They were first amazed they could look all around them and see action going on. The sound of the waves further separated them from the cold office environment. Feed back included: They could feel the sunlight. They thought the bird could see them in this virtual environment since it walked up to them and stared directly at them. They felt excited by the beach and ocean, like they had just left the office, even if it was for a few minutes. What does this all tell you? A 360 Cinematic experience can make a viewer forget they are in an office, and transport them to another place. The experience can feel personal to them. The viewer can forget it is a video on a phone duct taped to their head. This is amazing, and when they describe the experience as if they were actually someplace else, it sounds like they were in Virtual Reality. A filmmaker or artist can accomplish this in a 360 cinematic way. This does not take away from the interactive video games or programs. It is an art form that can be both entertaining and educational. I say this as someone who creates both 360 cinematic pieces, and fully immersed Unity game environments. Will people record crappy 360 video and put it on the internet calling it VR, yes. But people shoot crap video now and call it a feature film, and it does not take away from the film you see in the theater. I would rather we all work together to make the industry better.

  • Nukemarine

    Personally, I refer to 360 video (2d or 3d variety) as Immersive video when viewed through VR goggles like the Oculus Rift. On a normal 2d monitor it’s no more VR or immersive than a video game. Through the goggles and it’s like the edges of the photos do not exist and you have a sense scale (and sometimes depth) to the scene you’re experience. That’s definitely immersive in my book.

  • Tim Gedemer

    We’re missing a key point in this conversation… level of interactivity is but one factor in determining a baseline definition of what “Virtual Reality” experiences actually are. As someone working on the forefront of this movement, I can say with confidence that the debate centered around interactivity, or the lack of it, is at least matched by a discussion on these two things: 1. Stereoscopic Visuals 2. Spatial Audio … Virtual reality experiences must deliver something wholly different to the viewer than any other medium available today… Video Games, TV and Film already cover a lot of ground when it comes to delivering experiences, so what can VR deliver that these mediums cannot? Presence. Forgive the rudiments, but this is the sense that one has when viewing a VR experience that “transports” you to a reality that is not the one you’re currently living in… In other words, “Presence” is what happens when the brain is completely fooled into thinking it’s somewhere that it is not…This, among some other important things, is something that you can only experience in VR. True “presence” cannot be achieved with monoscopic visuals and a stereo audio track. You can get a sense of immersion, but not true presence. Our eyes see in 3D, and our ears hear in 360…If the brain doesn’t have these two things it can’t be fooled into thinking it’s somewhere else. As professionals, we must define what Virtual Reality really is, so the public knows the difference when they don a set of goggles… I have been suggesting this in panels I’ve participated in, and inner circles of VR content creators… Virtual Reality is, at the very least, an experience that can achieve presence for the viewer…so at minimum, Virtual Reality needs to be defined as experiences that at least have stereoscopic visuals and spatial audio. Anything else is simply using Virtual Reality technology to present an immersive – but not presence inducing – experience.

  • dinnyc

    I don’t think many of us were trying to frame it as a “fight” creating “apologists” and”purists” so let’s not permeate that idea when most end users don’t really care what it’s called but sooner or later will understand the differences after experiencing each. The problem was simply getting the established taxonomy incorrect. Here’s a reworking of the graphic:

    • Tako Schotanus

      Much better, although I’m not sure why you put VR under MR, not much is being mixed in VR is there?

      • GodMk2

        That’s what I was trying to work out? Mixed and augmented have some kind of relationship, but I’d say given AR is [usually] 1st person and MR is usually 3rd person, they should all just sit side by side under immersive media. You could slot in an “interactive” oval above the 3 xR items which is what differentiates them from 360. I think 360 has the longest development curve yet… lots of tech updates needed to sort stitching of live footage (at least on affordable systems). An item not on the list – where would you put 360 video that’s pre rendered but allows some degree of decision making – you know the old adventure game book style where you choose a b or c? A subclassification of 360 I guess?

  • GodMk2

    LOL I’m getting in arguments about this all the time. On your taxonomy I disagree… 360 video shouldn’t be a sub classification of VR – it should be on the line above next to AR and Mixed reality. It’s a different medium. If we were to describe fine art for example… VR is like sculpture that you can move around and touch. While 360 video is like painting – what was in the eye of the painter or how the director wanted to portray it. I have no objection to 360 video – there’s some good examples and bad examples, I just don’t think it should be called VR at all.. just call it what it is – 360 video, with subclassifications of 3d stereo or mono (spherical). The reason I object to 360 video being called VR is that it implies interaction not just immersion and I think that why you need a line drawn. I’ve seen numerous comments across broad spectrums of social media where people are saying things like “VR isn’t much good as you just sit there watching stuff and it’s all mushy”. I know then they are referring to 360 videos 😐 Get them out of their carboard 3D viewer and into a Gear VR/Daydream/Rift/Vive/PS VR – anything where they can move rather than observe passively and it’s a whole different ball game. I’ve even seen an attraction claiming it’s VR when actually on inspection it appears to be an old projection dome type film, rehashed into a headset.

  • Sascha Goto

    Good article.
    I would add two additional bubbles in between “Responsive VR” and “360° Cinema” in your chart:
    “Volumetric VR” (VR which allows to explore but doesn’t respond to a user’s presence)
    and “3D 360° Cinema” (the same as 360° but with true 3D images)