​From Sega VR to Star Wars: the Past, Present, and Future of 360-Degree Video

Are we ready to make the viewer the director?

In September 2015, Lucasfilm posted "Star Wars 360" on Facebook, which let the social platform's 1.65 billion users explore a galaxy far, far away. The 56-second mini-movie—one of the first virtual reality (VR) experiences uploaded to the platform—introduced 360-degree technology to Generation Z.

This was VR 2.0—a contemporary offshoot of a technology that boomed in the early-1990s, when VR pods like the Sega VR were manufactured for arcades and movie theaters, but failed to catch on. It has been 25 years, let's look at just how far has VR evolved.

360-Degree Technology: The Force Awakens

"Star Wars 360" provided an introduction to VR for younger viewers who don't remember previous incarnations of the technology, such as QuickTime VR—a short-lived image file format that let users explore panoramas through photos taken at multiple viewing angles.

It also served as a powerful marketing tool for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," helping to reestablish the franchise with a social media-savvy demographic. The Lucasfilm's marketing drives proved lucrative: the movie grossed a mind-boggling $825M in the first four weeks of its release.

In the time since the Star Wars 360, Facebook is now racking up numerous popular VR videos, including content from Discovery, NBC and GoPro. It's clear why VR is catching on—the technology enhances gaming and video, making the user the master of their destiny.

The experience is active—not passive—and lets users explore immersive environments such as barren, sun-scorched landscapes and deep, dark ocean pockets.

Challenges Facing VR

"Star Wars 360" let Facebook users navigate virtual oceans and soar past Star Destroyers without leaving their home. But, are fans of the world's biggest film franchise ready to control their own destiny?

"I wonder if a 360-degree movie is going to be compelling enough as its own medium," said Rob Bredow, now Chief Technology Officer of Lucasfilm, in 2015. "We haven't solved all the things we need to solve."

One of the challenges facing VR includes the time it takes to create a movie or game; "Star Wars 360" clocks in at less than a minute, and other VR videos on Facebook are even shorter. The more realistic the virtual environment, the longer it takes programmers to make.

Then there's the problem of turning a viewer into a director, especially when a cinematographer's framing choices are compromised, which can change the narrative of a video and impact how an audience receives the intended messages from the content.

Virtual Reality: A New Hope

Unlike the VR of the 1990s, videos like "Star Wars 360" don't require a headset, something that makes the technology much more accessible. In the case of Nintendo's Virtual Boy—a 3D video game console with VR components, launched in August 1995 and discontinued just four months later—the console was deemed a commercial failure because of its high price and uncomfortable hardware.

This time around, VR headsets are less glitchy, less bulky and less expensive. They're proving popular, too: Samsung's Gear VR headset, launched at the end of 2015, sold out on its first day of release.

Video and audio quality have also revolutionized VR. Live streaming with 360-degree technology is a must for marketers who want to create an immersive experience for customers and clients, and evoke stronger emotions than a traditional sales pitch.

VR can be an important tool for film making, too. Unicef and Samsung launched "Clouds Over Sidra," an eight-minute 360-degree film about the Syrian refugee crisis, in 2015. This mini documentary showcased how VR can bring global issues to a receptive audience.

As of June 2016, "Star Wars 360" has been watched more than seven million times on Facebook and scooped a technology award at a British film festival. It's safe to say 360-degree video technology has come a long way since consoles like the Sega VR first dabbled with it, and cinematographer's directorial challenges aside, this rebooted revolutionary medium holds immense potential for changing the way nearly all forms of media are delivered and experienced going forward.


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Jonathan Ronzio

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Additional contributions by Rob Everton

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