The 360 Video Path to VR

Tom Nickel
6 min readDec 23, 2017

I’m Tom Nickel, my lucky number is 32 and the tuk tuk drivers call me Pops …

I live in San Francisco and I’m in Phnom Penh to work with Cambodian Living Arts and the Bophana Center on using 360 video and VR to support their mission and extend their message.

The philosopher Marshall McLuhan has deeply influenced the way I (and a lot of other people) look at media, and all technology really, as an extension of some aspect of ourselves. A tuk tuk extends our legs. VR is an extension of the way our mind constructs the so-called real world, SCRW.

That’s something like what William Bricken meant back in 1990 at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference where modern VR was formally launched, when he said that, “Psychology is the physics of virtual reality.

Anything that can be awesome can also be awful; if it can liberate, it can also oppress. How will VR will implemented in the culture and how will our creation go on to re-create us?

I don’t know — but I don’t think anything is inherent in the medium or inevitable about the impact of new technologies. I think it’s up to us.

So lots of people must be discussing these questions, right?

Not really — most of the talk is about market share, units shipped and who got funded.

For instance, did you know that in 2016, two German professors proposed a Code of Ethics for VR and presented a very substantive outline about research required to understand the risks and other steps that should be taken?

I didn’t think so …

The idea of a Code got some coverage, but there has been zero uptake — no individual or organization has stepped up when the foundational work is needed — now.

Meanwhile bad stuff happens. Is virtual groping sexual assault? It’s been reported, and ‘debated,’ almost exclusively among VR gamers — No, it’s not real assault if it’s just in VR …Yes of course it is …

Meanwhile people can easily think, ‘it’s all going to be great, because VR is an Empathy Machine.’ The main basis for this idea is that wealthy donors looked at 360s of a refugee camp and gave lots of money. Why is that empathy? Maybe they gave money because their minds were blown.

Feeling present in a place doesn’t mean we process the experience in the same way as someone who actually lives there.

Can a 360 Video create a deep compassionate connection?Maybe, sometimes — in this 360 video made by Planned Parenthood, the camera itself gets harassed by abortion protesters (actors in a staged scene) on its way to a clinic in the US.

In the headset, the viewer becomes the camera and I think this approach to 360 video just might convey a deep sense of what the harassment would really feel like.

I believe the best way to help new media technologies support humans and human values is to participate — work with others or by yourself and produce stuff — get involved — don’t just passively take whatever comes, be a part of shaping the new medium.

Tell your own story …

Or let someone else help you tell it, in a 360 video interview. I produced 10 of them in the past few weeks in Phnom Penh, like this one with Virak Elli-Roem, an architect who leads tours around the city.

It can’t be as long as a podcast — but in a VR headset, a 360Cast puts you right in the middle of the whole thing.

While I believe 360 Video is the low-cost, easy-to use Gateway to VR, people debate whether the format is VR, and if it’s an impediment to ‘the real thing.’

If you believe what is unique about VR is itsInteractivity, then maybe it isn’t.

If you think the defining characteristic is Immersiveness, then 360 video is definitely over the threshold that can produce a feeling of Presence, of Being There.

I know 360 videos can do this because I’ve seen it. I’ve recorded 360s in classrooms at Sisowath High School, in the Russian Market, and in a Village near Siem Reap — and when people in theUS see them in a headset, most of the time they say, “it feels like I’m in a village in Cambodia!”

But my real interest is more than just feeling There.

I want to help people tell their own stories that grab an audience by the heart … to engage, connect, inspire.

It will be a new kind of storytelling, where we lead the audience but also let people explore. Where we use episodes that are complete by themselves, and leave audiences wanting to know what happens next, letting them explore all the segments — in a linear path, or however they choose.

There will also be stories where the setting is a character. We can understand people more deeply by understanding their Place. When I ask people, “tell me about your life,” — that’s hard. When I ask, “tell me about a Place that’s special to you,” that’s much easier and most people love doing it.

Connecting with people through their stories sometimes leads us to want to be together with them, not isolated, no matter where we happen to be located … which takes us beyond 360 video today and into Social VR.

My granddaughter is six and playing with kids from all over the world in Rec Room is normal to her.

With the application sharing Pluto VR has developed, we can talk in VR like it’s the phone, only better. We can meet and collaborate.

And just have fun — like getting together at the Seattle Space Needle and hanging out — in Google Earth.

Even meditating together, like this weekly group my son leads in AltspaceVR. We can meditate alone. We can meditate in a co-located group, people physically together, and we know that feels different. Now we can meditate as a group in VR — which could be a new, third form, with its own special qualities.

In a world of large institutions acting on their own imperatives as they must, we need to make sure than human values are at least part of the mix.

When many of us, from different places and different cultures, are working and playing and meditating together, I believe there’s a chance it can happen.

Thank you.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos