Does 360-Degree Video Have a Future on the TV?

Judging from the number of virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree imaging companies exhibiting at CES, 2016 will be a major year for this burgeoning format.

Capturing spherical images and videos (that is, a video that spans a full 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically) is nothing new, but until recently, the process was laborious. There were few cameras that could capture a 360-degree image in one snap and those that could were poor quality. Consumers could make a spherical image by meticulously stitching individual frames from carefully aligned panoramic images, but that was typically the domain of enthusiasts and professionals.

With capture devices like the Ricoh Theta S and Bublcam, that’s changing. Now, casual snapshooters can quickly take 360-degree photos and videos with apps and software that tackle the stitching and rendering for them. The resulting images and videos can typically be viewed through dedicated mobile apps and web browsers. Some of the videos can even be viewed in virtual reality headsets, like the Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR, where the turn of a head can reorient the viewer inside the circular footage.

What’s been missing from the nascent spherical imaging ecosystem to date has been a means of viewing these images and videos on a TV.

Enter Littlstar, which bills itself as the first content company to bring 360-degree videos to Apple TV. The app uses the Siri Remote so that viewers can navigate their way through a 360-degree video, changing their viewing angle with just a flick across the remote’s trackpad.

Littlstar has some impressive content partners, including Showtime, Disney, Discovery, PBS, National Geographic and Red Bull, though it’s not yet clear just how much of its content will be accessible through the Apple TV app.

Other content platforms, such as YouTube and even Facebook, have incorporated support for 360-degree stills and videos onto their desktop and mobile platforms, but have not yet ported the experience to the TV. The question is, does it belong there?

As Littlstar’s Apple TV integration suggests, controlling 360-degree content on the screen will depend on the remote experience and whether consumers want to spend their time scrolling around inside a video instead of passively sitting back and absorbing it. 360-degree experiences are more easily navigated using a mobile device—where it’s just a finger swipe to reposition your image—or a browser, where mouse-based navigation is just about hardwired into the human nervous system. For now, then, 360-degree video on the TV seems more like a novelty than a needed innovation. As consumers begin to generate more of their own spherical content, it’s more likely to catalyze demand for VR headsets than it is for solutions that make it navigable on the big screen.