Can Google Make 3D Video Cool Again?

The fate of 3D TVs has become a cautionary tale about the perils of attempting to market technologies without adequate consumer demand. But there was a little known offshoot of the 3D TV phenomena that enjoyed an equally short-lived moment in the sun. Shortly after 3D TVs began hitting the market, several camera and camcorder manufacturers launched 3D models in a bid to capture what was thought to be a budding market for user-generated 3D content.

Unfortunately for those manufacturers, consumers had about as much interest in making their own 3D videos as they did in buying 3D TVs.

But the eulogies for 3D photography and video may have been premature. Google is attempting to resurrect the format to compliment a new approach to virtual reality called VR180. VR180 is a new format that delivers a stereoscopic 3D image with a 180-degree field of view. To date, most VR cameras (at least the consumer-oriented ones) capture a 360-degree field of view—but at 2D. Google’s innovation is to trade away the completely spherical view to add greater dimensionality.

YouTube has already been updated to support the new format and Google says it is working with electronics companies (specifically Yi Technology, Lenovo and LG) to build VR180-compatible cameras. The first such models are expected by the end of 2017. Google will also certify other cameras that meet the yet-to-be-published VR180 specifications. The first product to pass that certification, according to Google, is the Z Cam. Other products that may pass muster are the Vuze from Humaneyes and the LucidCam, though that is only speculation.

The big question hanging over VR180 is whether the nascent market for virtual reality needs another format, much less one that is less immersive. After all, the promise of VR is that you’re surrounded by video and that the viewer can control where he or she looks. VR180 robs the viewer of that freedom. By narrowing the field of view, VR180 cameras are essentially the same 3D cameras that failed several years ago, only now with the trendy imprimatur of Google and YouTube.

On the plus side, Google’s VR180 is a far more mobile-friendly format. It’s easier to build a smartphone that can capture a 180-degree image than it is to make a phone that can record a 360-degree one. If Google can successfully implement VR180 into a mobile phone, then it stands a reasonable chance of succeeding on the consumer level. If not, it’s likely going to be relegated to the same small market niche currently occupied by the 2D/360-degree products already on the market.

However, VR180 may have excellent potential among professional filmmakers. One of the signature challenges of creating dramatic VR content (as opposed to documentary VR) is positioning the production crew. A 360-degree video leaves grips, audio engineers and related crew exposed to the camera. Narrowing the field of view from 360-degrees to 180-degrees gives those crew members and their gear a place to hide (just like in a traditional video production). It also solves one of the central challenges of VR storytelling: how to direct a viewer’s eye when they have an entire 360-degree sphere to observe. With only a 180-degree field of view, a viewer doesn’t have nearly as much space to let their eyes roam, empowering directors to, well, direct.

Google doesn’t appear to be aiming VR180 at cinematic content creators—at least not initially. But it’s a market segment worth exploring.