Getting Started with VR Video

Want to make VR content but not sure where to start? Here is a collection of best practices and tips that we have been collecting since the early days of VR, when all we had was a pair of cardboard goggles and some shaky 360 of the office dog. In this article, we will look at equipment, camera positioning, “the motion problem,” and more to help anyone avoid common problems and create quality virtual reality video.

At Driftspace, we are developing a platform as well as creating content. If you have an idea about something you want to create but need a sounding board, reach out to us. We love to talk shop.

First: Select the Right Equipment
to Create VR Video

As with most art, to start creating you need the right equipment. Currently, you need a special camera (or cameras) to create VR video. And while VR cameras and accessories can quickly become expensive, it is possible to create good quality content with basic, consumer-grade equipment.

Select a VR Camera: Monoscopic vs. Stereoscopic vs. VR 180

How do you choose among monoscopic, stereoscopic, or VR 180 cameras? There are a few different modes of VR video capture, and you’ll need to understand what each one does in order to figure out which one will work for your content. (Of note: Driftspace will soon support all of these modes, but we started with monoscopic 360 video and photos.)

  • Monoscopic 360 cameras use two 180-degree fisheye lenses combined to capture a 360 view of the world. They are generally the easiest and cheapest of the cameras, and are durable and lightweight—great for taking on adventures. You can also upgrade to professional 360 cameras, like the Insta360 Pro, designed to capture footage at significantly higher resolutions than consumer-grade action cameras.
  • Stereoscopic 360 cameras have more than two lenses, typically employing multiple sets of lenses placed at roughly eye-distance apart. The resulting video looks more 3D than monoscopic 360. The difference is a bit like that between a normally projected movie, and a movie with 3D glasses. But, like 3D movies, it can also sometimes generate moments where the viewer feels cross-eyed because 3D objects are cut off or end up at focal distances that don’t fit the human eye and brain. In general, it’s much trickier to get stereo video to be comfortable in a headset, and therefore more expensive to produce. But if you pull it off, the effect can be quite impressive.
  • VR 180 cameras need only two lenses like monoscopic 360, which keeps equipment costs down. And because you’re only pushing pixels to the half of the sphere where the user is looking, you can usually deliver more resolution than with stereoscopic 360. However, the same stereoscopic “eye crossing” issues can still be a problem. Despite its advantages, VR 180 does limit the sense of immersion. To us, when you look to the left or right and you see the content fade to black, it spoils that magical sense of teleportation to another place and time.

If you need more help deciding, we’ve created a list of our favorite cameras for 2021 to help you find one to get started.

If you want to learn more about camera lenses, how they film and how that affects motion sickness, check out our blog about VR’s effect on your brain.

Get a Tripod (and maybe a pole and dolly)

Once you’ve selected your camera, you’re also going to need a tripod. Because in general, if you don’t have to move the camera, don’t move the camera. Moving the camera increases the odds of causing motion sickness in VR viewers. So, whenever possible, use a tripod and don’t hand carry the camera. If you're in a situation where you can’t let go of the camera, use a pole tripod and try to stay still. If you have the budget for it, also consider using a robotic dolly (like this one from edelkrone) for motion sequences, to smooth the experience for the viewer.

Here’s a setup we like for travel/adventure 360 video: combine an extendable pole (like this one from Insta360) with a lightweight travel tripod (like this one from Kingjoy). The pole keeps bulky tripod attachments out of the shot, reducing the need to edit. The whole setup gives you great flexibility in shot height and places where the camera can go. It can also double as a walking stick or an extra-long selfie pole.

The pole to tripod configuration minimizes the amount of tripod gear that’s visible in the shot, making it easier to remove or hide. With travel/adventure content, we often find that with this kind of setup you can save time and leave the tripod in the shot. We find this can have an authentic feeling where the viewer is embodying the camera, rather than floating in empty space.

Second: Set Up Your Shot

If you’re using a 360 camera, one of the challenges is that the camera-person (and/or film crew) has no convenient place to hide “behind the camera” as they historically have done. There are some solutions to this problem. One solution is to set up your shot while thinking about a place to hide. Will the camera be able to see behind that tree or bush, or maybe around the corner? You could even peek out during the shot and create your own Where’s Waldo-style Easter egg.

To us, a more interesting option is for the camera operator(s) to be part of the shot. You can treat it as a built-in “behind-the-scenes” experience. People often enjoy seeing how content is made. Or, better yet, become part of the story. The person recording the experience can be interviewing subjects or narrating the experience. This mode is a natural fit for influencers of the future—think of it as a new kind of story, combining a point-of-view and an ever-present selfie.

Decide Where to Put the Camera

The major way in which VR video differs from traditional film is the lack of ability to frame a shot or use focus to direct our attention within it. But VR video is not entirely without a frame. The position of the camera within a space, and the subject matter close to it, is the primary driver of frame. The initial rotation of the shot also matters. Generally, you want the primary subject to be the first thing a viewer sees upon entering the scene in VR. (This is why in Driftspace we have a way to set the initial rotation of every scene so you can control what a user sees when they enter, regardless of where they were looking in the last scene.)

  • The Camera is Your Friend: An oft-repeated piece of VR video advice is to treat the camera as you would treat a friend. Ultimately you’re placing the viewer into the space with you, so a good rule of thumb is think about where your friend would sit or stand if they were actually there with you—that’s where you should put the camera. You also tend not to get right into your friends’ faces, or yell at them from across the room. Three to six feet is a nice, comfortable distance from the camera to the subject matter. Things closer than that (including human heads) will appear abnormally large due to the curvature of the lenses used in VR cameras—imagine looking out of a door peephole with someone’s face close to it on the other side.
  • Try a Novel Point of View: While the camera-as-friend guideline is helpful, it can be more interesting and entertaining to use different kinds of camera positions to create different kinds of experiences for the viewer. A camera placed lower to the ground can give a more child-like experience (or maybe animal-like). A camera raised to the sky can give the viewer a sense of perspective, and perhaps a god-like feeling. Cameras are also smaller than people, and can be placed in interesting locations, giving people novel views. As with games, VR video can put viewers inside of otherwise impossible locations, like inside the body to see how the COVID-19 virus works—or in imaginary spaces as one of our users, Arcane Realities, did with his rendered piece “Quantum Bubble.”

Third: Think “Immersive”

You’re ready to start filming! The key to making unique VR is to think about the difference between “showing” someone a story versus “immersing” someone into a story.

In that immersive process, one thorny issue is the risk of inducing motion sickness. If you’re curious about why motion sickness happens and techniques for helping viewers avoid it, check out our post on VR and Your Brain. But the TL;DR is to keep the camera still, or use stabilized, mostly linear, and non-accelerated movements.

Once you’ve accounted for the motion problems, you can think through the emotional and sensorial responses that a person may have from being fully immersed in a situation for the first time. They may experience a sense of wonder at the beauty, happiness, or humor that you show them, or they may experience fear or anger if they empathize with difficult subject matter, such as social injustices or a war-torn environment.

The feeling of being in a place is quite different than the feeling of being shown a picture of a place. Rather than a postcard of Egypt, you can give someone a taste of riding on a camel to see the great pyramids. Because viewers of VR video are locked to the camera, you’ll need to anticipate their curiosity. What would they want to do? Where would they want to look more closely? The power of Driftspace is that it allows for exploratory, choose-your-own-adventure-stye branching stories. You can capture multiple points of view and give people freedom to explore the spaces you share with them.

As you craft your story, think about how long you want them to stay in each part of the experience. Remember to get some responses from knowledgeable friends before publishing if your material is heavy or controversial. Also think about the arc of the story, and make sure the viewer feels a sense of safety and resolution at the end of their experience.

If you are using Driftspace for professional purposes, you may also want to think about taking the immersive experience one step further, and add sensorial experiences during the viewing process. For example, we’ll never forget the VR experience “Tree”, when they lit a match to heighten the simulation of our forest starting to burn, or the fan that added to the feeling of a breeze blowing through our leaves. This requires staffing at the time of viewing, but can be a fun and creative way to reach new audiences.

Finally, Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

VR is an emerging medium. Go out there and take some chances on creating new and interesting content. While there are some best practices, the medium is still being changed and expanded as more people make more VR.

In one compelling experiment our team tried early-on, we put a camera inside of a lobster trap as it was hauled out of the water. To our delight, we found that the motion was comfortable and the experience of being in an otherwise impossible space was quite interesting. Many viewers experienced a sense of terror at being so close to what looked like massive alien-like crustaceans. But as the trap emerges from the water, you see the world from the lobsters’ perspective as the lobsterman takes your now-fellows and throws them back to sea or into the hold. For many viewers, their empathetic position switches from human to crustacean—quite a powerful effect. And it was something we discovered on a whim and a chance. So we encourage you to do the same—experiment with different camera placements and angles to tell the stories you want to share.

We’d love to see what you create. We’d love to have you try the Driftspace beta so we can share in your creations.

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