Turning virtual reality into commercial reality

Photographer Luke Woods is a man on a mission. He’s working hard to persuade Dorset businesses to embrace virtual reality video and 360-degree images, as a way of standing out from the crowd.

Virtual reality is set to be the big content trend for 2017, according to a blog post on influential digital marketing website Econsultancy. But before I go any further, it’s probably useful to explain the differences between the various forms of photo and video that go beyond the traditional two dimensions.

A short guide to VR, 360-degree video, 3D and AR

Virtual reality - True VR is a highly immersive experience presented through a headset connected to a motion sensor and computer. The wearer is free to move through a virtual environment in any direction they choose. A virtual world can be an alternate reality, such as seen in computer games such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or a virtual version of our own world. 

360-degree video - Much of what we think of as VR is actually 360-degree video. It can also be presented through a headset with a motion sensor, but the wearer’s point of view is restricted to the camera’s position. If you’re watching 360-degree video through a headset, you can move your head to look in any direction you choose, but in, say, a street scene, you can’t decide to walk down the street.

For the last two years Luke Woods has been one of the those working with Google to improve the 360-degree experience. 

Take a quick look at this 360-degree video of Framptons in Bridport, by Luke Woods. You can view it on a flat screen device - you don’t need a headset. Once it starts playing, use your fingertip (on touch sensitive screens) or mouse to change your point of view.

Google

 

On some smartphones, you can select the cardboard icon, then put your smartphone in a VR viewer, and you'll have more of a virtual reality experience.

 

3D video - Just a few years ago, 3D was the next ‘big thing’ in home entertainment, with many TV sets offering the technology. But it didn’t take off, in part because people didn’t want the hassle of needing to wear 3D glasses whenever they watched.

Augmented reality - AR overlays our view of the world with computer generated information or images. Pokemon Go was AR’s big moment in 2016, adding a wealth of imaginary creatures to our homes and streets.

None of these technologies is actually new. I was exploring computer generated virtual worlds decades ago on a Commodore Amiga computer. Back then there were no motion-sensing headsets. All these can be viewed on a flat screen, although true VR, where you feel like you’re really there, does need a headset.

What is new is that it’s becoming easier to capture content on 360-degree video, and it’s increasingly being used in marketing and education.

Practical uses of 360-degree photos and video

Let’s say you want to book a short break for a special weekend away in a hotel. You find a place which, from its website, looks good. You look it up on TripAdvisor to see what other visitors have to say about it. But you want to go a step further and get a feel for what the rooms and facilities will be like. After all, photos are useful, but a skilful photographer will find the best angles and exclude what they don’t want you to see.

By offering a 360-degree image experience on their website, the hotel makes it much easier for you to experience what they have to offer. In this case study video from Luke Woods, a B&B owner explains how 360-degree images helped his business grow.

A good wedding photographer captures the magic of the big day and video enhances this. Using 360-degree video, you can make the memory even more immersive, and Luke provides an example of this, taken at Minterne House in the heart of Dorset.

Google Street View has been giving us 360-degree images of our nation for about ten years. You can now leave the street and go inside selected buildings and businesses. As a Google accredited photographer, Luke provides businesses with internal 360-degree images that are available from Street View.

Dorset estate agents Domvs now offer virtual reality property tours. When viewed along with drone overviews of a house, it’s now much easier to get a feel for your potential new home without having to visit in person.

It’s possible to stream 360-degree video live. In mid-2016, we saw the first livestream of a surgical procedure in 360-degrees, which could be hugely useful for medical students.

The power of 360-degree video is the sense of ‘being there’, particularly if it’s presented via a headset. It can be a powerful educational tool, and not just in schools. I’ve heard of one insurance company experimenting with putting their staff at the centre of a virtual home disaster, to make it easier for them to relate to customers who’ve just experienced the trauma for real.

Can 360-degree images help your business?

For some businesses, offering 360-degree photos or video can help them stand out from the crowd, because their competitors aren’t doing it. There’s a novelty factor to presenting yourself this way right now, simply because it’s new and unusual.

The commercial benefits of 360-degrees seem obvious for estate agents and those selling holiday home space, or a hire venue. If video is a great way to sell experiences, such as coasteering or boat rides, would a 360-degree video make it more immersive and more appealing?

What about the more mundane businesses, such as hairdressers and accountants? Can they take advantage of 360-degree images? Where the quality of your premises can make a difference to a customer’s experience, 350-degree can gives you a new way to showcase it.

We’re all more comfortable going inside business premises that we’re familiar with. By giving people an introduction to your workplace, through 360-degree images, you can help build that familiarity before they visit it person.

Because it’s still relatively unusual, 360-degree images don’t need to be very sophisticated to stand out. When they become more common, businesses will need to pay more attention to the content of the image or video, such as introducing storytelling. And doing that in 360-degrees is very different from the traditional single point of view presentation we see every day.

Learn more about VR and 360-degree images

This has been a quick overview of virtual reality and 360-degree imagery. If you want to know more, here are some suggestions of where to go next:

Get in touch with Luke Woods via his website, or look him up on Twitter or Facebook. Luke is a specialist in this area – one of a small number of photographers sought out by Google to help take their 360-degree project forward. Luke provides businesses with 360-degree images, allowing people using Street View to enter and explore their business premises.

Take a look at Google Cardboard. You can build or buy a VR headset made literally from cardboard, which uses a smartphone as a viewing screen. Simple but very effective!

Explore some fabulous 360-degree images on Flickr VR. But remember, despite the name, they are not true virtual reality, because you're not free to roam around to change your point of view.

Read How to use 360-degree video in your social media marketing, from Social Media Examiner. This article is now 18 months old but is still very fresh. 

Andrew Knowles