YouTube is now the internet home of proto–virtual reality: As of Friday, the site is a 3-D video platform. If YouTube users have footage to upload from fancy 360 video cameras, they can now create videos viewable from multiple angles — a whole new perspective on what online video should be.
YouTube promised 360-degree video support back in January, but the delay didn't matter much: 360-degree cameras are still rare, and there was no great outpouring of stored-up content onto the internet over the weekend. But you can see what's coming. Stunt-and-thrills YouTube channel FullMag, for instance, had ready a whole series of videos that depict wingsuit flights — sky and ground are visible from all sides, and the sound of wind-ruffling canvas makes the whole experience surreally tangible.
360-degree cameras work by recording fish-eye footage in real time and stitching it together to form a 3D image—YouTube compares these videos to a choose-your-own-adventure, with a different story each direction you look.
"Every time you watch it you'll see something you didn't notice last time," says Matt Rowell, the founder of Portland-based production company 360 Labs, which specializes 360-degree photography. "Even in videos I've shot myself, friends of mine still point out new details that I hadn't noticed." Which means that these videos have the potential to keep people lingering on websites for even longer and to be shared not just once, but multiple times, as friends ping-pong them back and forth to show what they found. And they're an obvious next-gen toy for anyone obsessed with their GoPro. As Rowell puts it: "Why limit your perspective to just one direction?"
360-degree video's big internet moment isn't quite here yet: Unless the clips are viewed in super-high resolution, the quality is fuzzy. But that moment is coming. Within the next few months, for instance, Giroptic’s 360cam — which raised a solid $1.5 million on Kickstarter — will be shipped to thousands of supporters. And three-dimensional video’s larger appeal has to do with its close cousin: virtual reality. When combined, the two will potentially work in tandem to put the viewer in the sky or on the surfboard or in the trenches with whoever is shooting the footage. VR headsets might start showing up on Christmas lists first, but once everyone has a gadget that lets them see in 360 degree, they're going to want to make their own videos for it.