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Attendees try out Facebook’s 360 degree video at the company’s F8 developer conference

SAN FRANCISCO–One of Facebook’s smaller announcements at its F8 developer conference yesterday was the launch of support for 360 degree video on the social network. With the new feature, people can watch video that has been recorded using a spherical camera rig and move their perspective around as the footage is playing.

There’s one wrinkle: it works with Oculus’s virtual reality headsets in addition to web browsers and mobile phones. That means people can put on their Oculus Rift or Gear VR headsets and control their view inside the video by tilting and turning their head. After going hands-on with the new feature, it’s clearly interesting, but nothing that will knock people’s socks off.

Facebook set up a “Teleportation Station” at the conference venue for people to take a look at a live, 360 degree feed from Hacker Square on the company’s Menlo Park campus through a Samsung Gear VR headset. I sat down in a white armchair and an attendant handed me a bright white Gear VR unit with a Samsung phone snapped inside.

When I finally managed to get it fit over my glasses, my view lit up with a picture of…Facebook’s Hacker Square, though the image was a touch more pixellated than real life. I saw people walking around and having conversations, just as if I was there in real life. If I craned my neck skyward, I could see a bird perched in the tree branches directly above the camera array.

The demo lacked the feeling of presence I’ve felt in other VR demos, and I’d bet that has to do with the lack of audio in the feed. Facebook didn’t have headphones relaying the sounds from its campus, so I was left listening to the music the company was pumping through Fort Mason while viewing its campus roughly 27 miles away.

A version of the 360 degree camera rig used to power the Teleportation Station demo
A version of the 360 degree camera rig used to power the Teleportation Station demo

It’s also worth noting that the demo was based on a stationary rig rather than a set of cameras in motion. As I spun and tilted my head in the armchair, I was always in control of my motion. That’s key because all of the VR demos I’ve tried that involve moving through space without actually moving my body have led to a certain amount of disorientation, even if it isn’t particularly strong.

Mark Zuckerberg showed off an aerial video during his announcement of the feature yesterday, and I’m not sure how successful that will be with people who have weaker stomachs.

Still, while it’s not particularly whiz-bang, spherical video seems like the sort of content that will allow businesses like broadcast news networks and film studios to create content for VR without having to spend time and money manufacturing a bespoke experience every time. Beachfront webcams could suddenly become a whole lot more interesting if they were available in 360 degree views.

That sort of easier to produce content will be key for virtual reality as we head towards the consumer launch of headsets from Oculus, Sony, Valve and others. Especially during the early days of VR, there will likely be a paucity of content available for that hardware, so having a simple method of creation will help matters.

Of course, it’s not clear how interested companies will be in producing spherical video content. YouTube added support for the format earlier this year, and there hasn’t been an avalanche of new content like that yet.

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