Most Virtual Reality Is Not Virtual Reality. Here’s Why

If the industry really wants this to catch on, a little verbal clarity will help.

360 v VR Gear Patrol Lead Full

With all the new 360-degree cameras flooding the market — Samsung, 360Fly, Ricoh, Kodak, Nikon, and many more — it’s pretty obvious that “virtual reality” is the global Next Big Thing in consumer electronics.

Except, it’s not. Well, it is — virtual reality’s ascension, that is — but 360-degree cameras are not actually VR devices. Not precisely. It feels like hair-splitting, but the distinction is important, and the consumer-electronics industry’s long history of not splitting those hairs quite well enough can confuse enthusiasts looking to ride the next coolest wave.

Consider, for instance, some misleading terminology that has recently muddied the retail-electronics waters. HD Radio, for instance, is a technology used to transmit radio signals digitally instead of via analog transmitters. Unfortunately, digital transmission doesn’t automatically mean “high-definition” at all — it just means digital. But HD Radio creator iBiquity thought it would be great to cozy up to the public’s grasp of HD television tech when branding their radio transmitter. It’s deliberately misleading. Consumers purchase HD Radio gear thinking they’re getting enhanced audio. They’re absolutely not. (High-definition audio is another variation, replete with its own controversies.)

As cool as they are, 360-cameras are not VR.

Then there’s that major media darling (or whipping boy) of the moment, autonomy. Tesla and Mercedes both have cars they describe as semi-autonomous. That means they can detect vehicles and objects in their surroundings and avoid them — usually far better than human drivers — while keeping the car cruising down the road in what amounts to an only slightly more advanced version of cruise control. Real autonomy (thinking, making decisions, even having decision protocols) is an order of magnitude more difficult than simple see-and-avoid technology. Throwing “semi” into the nomenclature just adds to the confusion. It’s not autonomy. Not even close, really.

360 v VR Gear Patrol Ambiance
Devices like HTC's Vive headset (left) can provide true VR experiences but are expensive and need to be tethered to a computer. Simpler devices like Samsung's Gear VR are more suited to 360-degree video.

The same is true for virtual reality. As cool as they are, 360-cameras are not VR. True VR constitutes simulated environments, whether replications of actual places or fictional worlds, presented via high-powered headgear and, eventually, other bodily accessories like gloves and whatnot. Users have the ability to move around the environments and interact with them. The worlds need to be created, and for that, significant computing power is necessary. This is the reason the most advanced virtual-reality goggles, including the Oculus Rift, must be tethered to a PC. Other versions can work via smartphones inserted into goggles ahead of a pair of lenses, but the experience is limited to what sort of environment the app can generate.

In VR you control the experience; in 360 you’re simply along for the ride. Having said that, it can be a great ride.

The new 360-degree cameras purchased by consumers and professional photographers, on the other hand, provide photo or video of given environments. You can look around within the content they create, but you can’t navigate it or control anything beyond the direction you’re looking. It’s mostly about immersive visual experiences. So while in VR you control the experience, in 360 you’re simply along for the ride. Having said that, it can be a great ride, and the 360-degree experience should only grow more and more amazing as talented creators come up with clever, compelling experiences using the hardware. Most, so far, have been creatively disappointing, even if the ride-alongs on surfboards and mountain bikes and the like have been crazy-cool. (That, by the way, is yet another key differentiator here — VR hardware is intended for VR audiences; 360-degree cameras are for creators of 360 content. As is the case with drone technology, most 360 cams will eventually end up sitting on the shelves at home while the enthusiasts enjoy 360 experiences created by actual professional-level creators.)

Consumers can, of course, be forgiven for connecting the dots between 360 cams and virtual reality. After all, the same goggles that enable VR also facilitate the viewing of these 360-degree videos and images. But when product marketers apply VR terminology directly to 360 cams, they’re being generous with the vocabulary at best. You can certainly argue that a 360-degree view is indeed a form of virtual reality, but it’s still a misleading nomenclature. Virtual reality is absolutely here to stay. Whether 360-degree cameras catch on similarly well will depend on how truly easy and satisfying the experiences are, for both the camera users and the content viewers, and how much the buyers grasp all the distinctions.

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