360 Video: Understanding Immersive Videos in 2021

by Jim Donnelly | Jul 12, 2021

Fully immersive, 4K 360 video is a hot commodity; 360-degree video cameras (also known as spherical or omnidirectional video) are more powerful and accessible than ever, and viewing options—from social media platforms to VR headsets—are plentiful.

While buzz around immersive 360 video is high, the technical requirements for shooting, producing, viewing, and sharing spherical video files—which can be notoriously large and difficult to wrangle—aren’t as well known. 

So we’ve compiled a brief rundown to help you produce your own 4K 360-degree video. You’re welcome!

360-degree image of a skyline

Photo by AJ Colores on Unsplash

What is 360-degree video?

Immersive or 360 videos are recordings that include views from every direction, all shot at the same time, using a rig of multiple cameras or an omnidirectional camera. But the history of immersive images can be traced back to a time before video even existed.

The first known use of “panorama” in English (from Greek, pan meaning “all” and horama meaning “view”) occurred all the way back in 1792, when painter Robert Barker coined the term to describe his wide-angle paintings of Edinburgh and London.

A man uses a browser window to open Google on his laptop

By Henry Aston Barker – Government Art Collection., Public Domain

While this was a huge departure from typical artistic approaches—leaving viewers with the “sense of being elsewhere without physically being there”—panoramic paintings were soon eclipsed by 360-degree cameras (with the first mass produced panoramic camera, the Al-Vista, introduced in 1898). The 1980s brought even more technological advancement to 360-degree cameras, coupling high-end optics with the flexibility of relatively standard 35 mm film. 

Video professionals today can access a dazzling array of digital 360-degree cameras capable of shooting high-quality video. Demand for 360 video tools has skyrocketed alongside its increasing appearance in mainstream venues: YouTube began hosting 360-degree videos in 2015. Facebook soon followed suit. The first International Space Station spacewalk was filmed in 360-degree video in 2017.

 These days, 360 video seems like it’s everywhere—even in advertising and content marketing. And although it’s sometimes also called virtual reality (VR), 360 video is slightly different in that you can’t reach out and manipulate objects within your field of view (as is the case with VR applications).

How to make a 360-degree video?

360 video is generally filmed in two different ways: Through a rig of multiple cameras (like the GoPro Omni), or via one camera capable of 360-degree filming (these cameras contain multiple lenses each recording video at overlapping angles). All-in-one omnidirectional cameras such as the GoPro Max or Insta360 cameras are now more the norm.

insta360 camera

Insta360 Camera by Maik Kleinert on Unsplash

There are two main types of immersive video:

  1. Monoscopic: The most common type, monoscopic 360-degree video consists of one image formatted as an equirectangular projection—think how a world map (of a spherical shape) is viewed as a flat image. Monoscopic typically has a 2:1 aspect ratio, and common resolutions include 840 x 1920, 4096 x 2048, 5760 x 2880, and 7680 x 3840.
  2. Stereoscopic: This type of 360-degree video uses two images for each eye, at slightly different perspectives, to create a 3D effect when used with VR goggles and other viewing hardware. Stereoscopic immersive video has an aspect ratio of 1:1, with common stereoscopic resolutions including 3840 x 3840, 5120 x 5120 and 7680 x 7680.

No matter which camera or video type is used, all immersive footage must then be stitched together (either automatically in-camera, or through separate 360-degree video stitching software in post production) to create a single, unified video. 

The stitching process can be manual or automated, and for a clean result requires a bit of overlap between each camera or lens. If done poorly, it can negatively impact video quality by leaving stitch lines.

Video resolution and image quality

Speaking of image quality, it’s a tricky thing when it comes to 360 video, which has a reputation for sometimes lacking top-shelf resolution. But there’s a good reason for that: Because a spherical video is much more spread out than a typical video, the number of pixels are also spread out across a much larger viewing area. 

That means that while most standard 4K video has a resolution of around 4,000 pixels widthwise across the screen, a 4K 360-degree video with a 120-degree field of view (FOV) consists of only around 1,300 pixels at any given moment within the user’s FOV. This also means that producing 4K FOV video (where everything is in 4K across the entire sphere) requires insanely high resolution, resulting in truly massive files that can be difficult to share with clients and partners.

Two developers working at their desk

Image courtesy Immersive Shooter.

It’s for the above reason that some video professionals choose to shoot 180-degree video, because it’s only half a sphere. You can achieve higher pixel densities and frame rates. 360-degree video frame rates typically top out at 60 fps (though it’s often necessary to decrease frame rates to suit the limitations of specific hardware or streaming services—more on this later).

How large can 360-degree video files get?

As one can imagine, 360 video files comprised of video from numerous cameras or lenses can get fairly girthy—and that’s before other factors such as bitrate and resolution come into play. Because bitrate indicates the number of bits transferred per second, a high-bitrate immersive video will have higher quality but will also be heavier, size-wise.

While it’s next to impossible to find video file size calculators for immersive video, this video professional estimates a five-minute 360 video with a bitrate of 150Mbps would clock in at around 5.5GB. Ultimately, however, file size would also depend on additional factors such as resolution and type (monoscopic or stereoscopic).

Compression of immersive video

Just like regular video, 360 videos can be compressed with codecs to get those files a little smaller and more manageable. The most common codec used alongside spherical video is typically H.264 in an MP4 container, mostly because it’s supported across a wide range of playback devices and platforms. But other encoders—such as AV1, Google’s VP9, and H.265—can also be used.

Ways to view 360-degree video files

There are several ways to play back immersive video files, but you’ll first need to modify your video using software such as Adobe Premiere Pro to fit the recommended specifications of your preferred hardware or web platforms. Some media players are especially suited to 360 video, such as GoPro’s VR Player 2.0 (which can be connected to a VR headset), VLC Media Player, or Visbit (Visbit Lite is a free beta product that encodes and plays back 360 videos at up to 6K at 60 fps).

VR headsets, including Oculus Quest 2, PlayStation VR, and Google Cardboard—capable of true VR, but also playback of 360 video, are also popular. But again, it’s important to keep in mind the specifications required for each platform. Oculus Quest 2, for example, can handle the following maximum resolutions for spherical video:

  • Monoscopic: Up to 8192 x 4096 @ 60 FPS, 100 Mbit, H.265 codec
  • Stereoscopic: Up to 5760 x 5760 @ 60 FPS, 100 Mbit, H.265 codec 

You can stream your 360-degree videos on streaming and social media platforms, as well, which also have strict (and somewhat more limited) specifications. Facebook recommends users upload 360 videos with the following specifications:

File type .mp4 or .mov
Codec H.264

Mono: Up to 5120 x 2560

Stereo: Up to 5120 x 5120

Frame rate 30 fps
Format Equirectangular/cubemap
Bitrate Up to 45 mbps for 4K (recommended 25-60 overall)
File size Recommended up to 10 GB

    YouTube recommends an equirectangular image at resolutions of 7168 x 3584 or 8192 x 4096, with a frame rate between 24 and 60 fps. You can also add spatial audio to your video for a truly immersive experience.

    Want to learn more about spatial and high fidelity audio? Read our post on Understanding Audio File Formats.

    How do I share my 360-degree video files?

    Secure file transfer for Linux

    Because high-resolution 360 videos with length and rich audio can result in very heavy files, you can’t send them by email—and many file transfer applications and cloud service providers impose file transfer size limits.

    These file size limitations are notorious for causing unneeded stress for video professionals on a deadline, especially as massive 4K, 8K, and 360 video files of various resolutions become more common.

    That’s why MASV large file transfer has no limits on file sizes or transfer speeds. MASV handles multi-terabyte files with ease through a simple, browser-based interface (or you can use the MASV desktop app to overcome browser limitations for files bigger than 100 GB). And our global network of more than 150 servers powers some of the fastest upload and download speeds possible – no matter how large your file.

    Try it yourself for zero commitment and zero dollars with MASV’s free trial, and get 100GB to play with for free right off the bat.

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    360 Video: Understanding Immersive Videos in 2021

    360 video is a recording that include views from every direction, all shot at the same time, using a rig of multiple cameras or an omnidirectional camera.