Virtual Reality and 360′ Streaming Trends 2017June 19, 2017
Over the past several years, Wowza has seen growing interest in virtual reality (VR) and 360° viewing experiences. In the ever-evolving landscape that is live streaming, these technologies are emerging as two of the most innovative trends, powering use cases across industries—from concerts and events to security, education and even live medical surgeries.
Investment in VR and 360° hardware, software and delivery technology has been booming for the past few years, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. Facebook led the charge by acquiring Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, and in 2016, released the first consumer VR headset with the Oculus Rift. The Pokemon Go mobile app became a surprise global augmented-reality phenomenon in 2016, with $600 million in revenue just in the first three months.
Today, the world’s largest corporations are all investing heavily in VR and 360° development, including Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Sony and Samsung, in addition to Facebook. Even the U.S. Army is beginning to use VR technology to train soldiers.
VR vs. 360°
So, what’s the difference between VR and 360° video? VR immerses you in a new, virtual environment that does not physically exist. This environment can be computer-generated through self-contained software that may be downloaded and saved to a machine, or it can be live-streamed; video games are the most common example.
On the other hand, 360° video transports viewers into a real, immersive, live-streaming experience that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to, and that can’t be installed on a machine—for example, a live broadcast of a concert or sporting event that gives viewers a seat from the stands. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on 360° video, as this is the most applicable for streaming workflows.
Anyone who has used Google Street View or Bing Streetside in a browser has already experienced interactive 360° photography, in which you move through a scene by tapping and panning. You can now have similar experiences with on-demand and live video streams, too—for example, in mobile apps that change the scene based on the position and motion of your device. (Explore 360° videos on the Facebook 360 page.)
The Playback Reality of VR/360°
VR goggles take 360° visual experiences even further by adjusting what you see based on which direction your face is pointing. To these, 360° content creators can add additional sensory cues. For example, platforms such as Virtuix Omni allow you to seemingly walk in any direction. Some players are also integrating 360° audio; while VR goggles still require you to use headphones, they provide accurate, directional sound that match your field of vision (FOV) to what you’re hearing and the source audio.
Social media giant Facebook is also leading innovation in the VR and 360° space. Its player integrates 360° audio, returning sound quality with pinpoint geospatial accuracy based on your FOV. It also utilizes its unique cube map projection technology, which renders video in the shape of a cube—providing clearer, less distorted images and a smoother scaling of your FOV as you move. Conversely, the traditional layout for VR and 360° video is spherical, which can stretch and distort the image, creating the appearance of a “fish-eye” lens.
The Evolution of 360° Hardware
While goggles were once the only option for viewing VR and 360° content, today, it’s accessible from the palm of your hand through your mobile device. VR and 360° cameras have also evolved a great deal over the years, with a variety of commercial- and consumer-grade models now available at a range of price points. There are even sleek, portable cameras that attach to mobile devices, so consumers can capture immersive virtual experiences from wherever they are.
Mobile 360° cameras, such as the Insta360 Nano offer built-in encoders, which pull in multiple feeds, encode them within the device and stitch them together into one high-quality stream—all on the fly. This stream can then be delivered to a variety of destinations around the web using a media server, such as Wowza Streaming Engine. Examples of desktop VR and 360° devices with this functionality include the Nokia OZO.
There are also stand-alone VR and 360° hardware encoders that allow for live stitching of multiple camera feeds, along with monitoring and calibration of live streams. The Teradek Sphere is one such encoder, which allows 360° live-streams to be recorded on-site using an iOS device.
How can you ensure support for all this hardware across various end-user devices? Player clients such as NEXPlayer, JW Player, Bitmovin and THEOPlayer offer SDKs developers can use to build VR and 360°-friendly mobile apps and web-based players.
Finally, to scale your VR and 360° streams to a global audience, media server software—such as Wowza Streaming Engine or Wowza Streaming Cloud—must be used for process and delivery. From there, you can use a content delivery network (CDN), such as Wowza CDN, to deliver to an even broader audience.
Wowza Powers Innovation in VR Workflows
So, how long until we can share a virtual seat with others as we tune into a live, 360° broadcast straight from the couch? A Golden State Warriors basketball game was an early test, allowing viewers to feel as if they were at the game, even when sitting at home.
In 2017, live 360° events were taken to the next level. In January, Radiant Images used Wowza technology to live-stream President Obama’s farewell address in immersive 360° video. Multiple cameras were used to stream the broadcast to every social media platform, giving viewers around the world a front-row seat to the President’s speech. In the same month, Periscope offered the first live, 360° underwater broadcast—powered by Wowza Streaming Cloud.
Wowza continues to be a core technology for powering live 360° event and VR workflows, from the White House to the Oscars; Lollapalooza and corporate events; and more than we even know. While a few VR providers use proprietary streaming technologies, most use the streaming protocols that are at the heart of Wowza Streaming Engine and Wowza Streaming Cloud.
There are nearly limitless applications for 360° and VR streaming. We’ll soon see it used in all kinds of use cases: racing, weddings, corporate meetings, education, medicine, military applications and more. It’s going to be a fun ride!