As virtual reality makes strides in the tech world, the next big thing is tipped to be a visual technology that can capture and show what people see in 360 degrees.

“It’s like in the 1920s with Hollywood and film: There was just the brand new beginning of something new,” Thomas Small, Google Inc.’s manager of technology programs for YouTube Spaces, told The Japan Times on a recent visit to Tokyo.

“At first, people don’t even know what this is going to turn into, and this is where we are now with virtual reality and 360-degree (videos and movies).”

Post from RICOH THETA. #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

While still emerging in the wider consumer domain, Small said 360-degree imaging has been around for a long time; most people just don’t know about it.

“The thing that has happened just in the past year is that . . . people are beginning to discover it,” he said.

Small said as major social media platforms increasingly back the technology, 360-degree imaging will become more accessible allowing people to see multiple angles of the same shot.

In an example of how it is already being put to use, Cirque du Soleil has been promoting its “Totem” tour in Japan with a video that gives viewers a taste of the live performance in 360 degrees.

On a computer, this works by dragging the cursor across the video. On a smartphone or tablet computer with an up-to-date YouTube app, viewers move the device around to change their view.

When watched with a VR headset on, the angle changes as viewers look around, making it feel as if they are watching from center stage.

Ryota Tomiyama, general manager of the promotion venture Life Style Inc., speaks about 360-degree imaging technology during an interview in Tokyo on Aug. 30.
Ryota Tomiyama, general manager of the promotion venture Life Style Inc., speaks about 360-degree imaging technology during an interview in Tokyo on Aug. 30. | SHUSUKE MURAI

Using 360-degree images and videos lets viewers “feel as close to reality as possible,” said Ryota Tomiyama, general manager of Tokyo-based venture Life Style Inc., the 360-degree imaging promotion company that created the Cirque du Soleil video.

Unlike traditional 2-D images, where the angles are defined by photographers, 360-degree images let people have the freedom to see what they want, he said.

In the retail world, for example, he said 360-degree images can help sell a product by assuring prospective customers.

“Suppose that you reserved a table at a restaurant after being impressed by photos on its website. But when you arrive at the venue, you are disappointed because the reality is far from what you imagined,” Tomiyama said. “Such things can be avoided if you can check in 360 degrees.”

But Tomiyama said that because the technology is starting to hit the mainstream, “many companies are now struggling to discover how this can help promote them.”

“Today, more and more people are seeking authentic, live information. And 360-degree presentations are well-suited for filling the demand,” he said.

The experience has been spreading among casual photographers as 360-degree cameras hit the market in increasing numbers.

Ricoh Co.’s Theta series is one example. The Ricoh Theta allows you to take 360-degree photos and videos with the push of a button.

Tomohiro Noguchi, general manager in charge of developing Ricoh Theta, said although panoramic photos have been around for a while, the 360-degree phenomenon has only recently taken off, driven by the VR boom.

The high-end Ricoh Theta S has two fish-eye lenses on each side of its 13-cm-long body. Each lens takes 180-degree hemispherical photos, with the camera’s image processing system combining them to create a 360-degree spherical shot.

Viewing the photos and videos requires Ricoh’s app, which is free to download. They have also been viewable on YouTube since March 2015 and on Facebook since June.

Noguchi said the market for compact cameras is still shrinking following the advent of high-resolution smartphone cameras. This means manufacturers are seeking new ways to lure casual photographers.

“Even though people don’t buy compact cameras, that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped taking photos,” he said.

“Rather, taking photos has become even more familiar to everyone, thanks to smartphones.”

Using Ricoh Co.
Using Ricoh Co.’s free app, users can navigate a photo in 360 degrees. | SHUSUKE MURAI

As 360-degree imaging becomes more popular, people may revisit other technologies to enjoy them, such as holography, Noguchi said.

For Halloween this year, YouTube, owned by Google, will release a horror movie filmed using Google’s 3-D/360-degree camera called Jump.

Made using 16 GoPro cameras arranged in a circle, the raw footage captured by each camera is sent to Google’s cloud-based image processing system to create a panoramic 3-D video.

When seen via VR goggles, the stereoscopic 360-degree video makes you “feel like you are there,” Google’s Small said at the YouTube Space studio in Tokyo’s Roppongi district during filming earlier this month.

Google Inc. uses this 3-D/360-degree camera rig called Jump to shoot YouTube
Google Inc. uses this 3-D/360-degree camera rig called Jump to shoot YouTube’s horror movie project on Sept. 1. | SHUSUKE MURAI

“It is like teleportation, like ‘Star Trek,’ like you beam down to the planet,” he said, adding that 360-degree imaging will be the beginning of a new standard where people naturally interact with multimedia contents in virtual space.

“In the future, to work with our data, we will just reach and touch; reach out to touch and grab and move and pick up — like children playing with toys, playing with blocks. This is how we will interface with our data and our information.”

For the director of the YouTube horror project, filming with next-generation imaging technology was an interesting exercise.

“Although I have tested some unique representations like dome-shaped cameras and 3-D films, it was completely a unique experience for me to film with a 360-degree camera. And it was very thought-provoking,” said Takashi Shimizu.

Shimizu is best known for creating the “Ju-on” series, which was screened in America as “The Grudge.”

“I believe new representation ideas using 360-degree imaging will soon emerge and spread through not only us professionals, but also via amateur creators,” he said.

This monthly feature, appearing on the second Monday or on the second Tuesday when Monday is a press holiday, looks at technologies still under development or new to the market.

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