I have been making my own Virtual Reality (VR) videos for eight months, using two different cameras.
The first was a Ricoh Theta M15 camera that I bought in April after seeing one displayed at South by Southwest Interactive. It cost $247, and the quality of the video was not great.
I set up the Theta at a Susan Carlson quilting workshop that Darlene attended in Lyons, Colorado. In the 360 video that I uploaded to YouTube you can see Susan answering questions about her quilts, but the images of her and the students are dark and blurred. The audio isn’t too bad.
What’s fantastic is that you can turn your view toward a student on one side of the table as she asks a question and then turn to Susan for her answer. On a computer, you change the view with your mouse, clicking and dragging on the video to move the viewing window wherever you like.
What’s even more fantastic is to watch the scene wearing a Gear VR headset. This creates a powerful illusion in your mind — that you are a very small person standing on the table, able to look up and down and all around you, just as you do in real life. There is a huge difference between moving your attention with your head, the way you move your eyes to scan a real room, and changing a computer or smartphone’s screen orientation with a mouse or your finger.
I can’t remember how I got the Theta video from the camera to YouTube, but I know it was a royal pain in the neck. That’s why I was eager to upgrade to a Samsung Gear 360 camera as soon as I saw one on Amazon. It looked as if moving video from the camera to my Samsung Galaxy S7 would be easier, and it is.
Samsung Gear 360 camera
I bought the Gear 360 for $499 from an overseas retailer in May, because it wasn’t available yet in the U.S. It’s now for sale at Amazon for $275. The Gear 360’s resolution is 30 megapixels, compared with 14 megapixels for the Theta. That explains the much-improved clarity of images, especially when you experience them with the headset.
The Samsung VR camera is also very cute. It looks like a little robot standing on three legs. Its two back-to-back lenses look out in opposite directions, gathering data from all directions.
Shooting a VR home movie means figuring out where to place the camera and then walking away from it. You try to imagine what might happen all around the camera when you hit the record button. The best scenes are ones that will have something happening everywhere, not just on one side.
It’s a good idea to imagine who might knock the camera off its perch. I learned this the hard way on a pedestrian mall in Burlington, Vermont. I mounted the Gear 360 on a Gorillapod tripod atop a post at a street crossing. A guy brushed up against it as he walked by, and the camera fell hard on the brick walkway. It turned out to be tough enough to survive the fall, and it made for a dramatic little VR clip.
I made a better choice when I filmed the annual Doggie Breakfast on the beach at Ocean Park, Maine, in August. I found a small, blue table at the cottage and brought it down to the beach. I hovered by the table and successfully protected the camera from wagging tails and distracted humans. A problem with the table, though, was that it had too big a footprint. If you move your view down toward your feet wearing the headset, you see a big patch of blue that adds nothing to the watchability of the video.
A highlight of the Doggie Breakfast is a parade led by organizer Lynne Yeamans, who holds an American flag aloft at the head of the procession. This turned out to be a fun scene for VR, because the dogs and owners approach the camera and then move to the right. You can also see the spectators on the other side of the blue table. A couple of dogs sniff the camera, which results in intimate views of their noses.
I wish I had placed the Gear 360 nearer to the Rev. Sally Poland, who from a lawn chair by the dune offered group and individual blessings to any dogs whose owners sought them. The blue table was too far away to show the blessings, and I thought it would be disruptive to move it in mid-video.
I have had good luck placing the Gear 360 on a table with people on all sides. You’d think this would make dull viewing, but with the headset a simple family gathering at a restaurant can be hilarious. Again, you feel as if you are a very small person at the center of that table, spinning around to look at who’s talking or maybe just watching the expressions on other people’s faces when you are talking.
In Omaha over Thanksgiving, I filmed a board game at Darlene’s brother’s home. It was a silly game, I forget the name of it, so the foolish antics make good VR viewing in all directions. When someone moves their piece along the board, the hand looms huge when it is close to the camera.
It takes a lot of time, but I have had good luck uploading video from the Gear 360 to the Galaxy S7 via Bluetooth and then by WiFi to YouTube. I have not tried editing the files in iMovie on my MacBook Pro, but I think it will be easy enough, because the files have standard extensions.
The real challenge with VR home movies is how to show them to family and friends. If you upload them to YouTube people can see them, moving the scene with the mouse. But that’s about 20 percent of the impact that you get with the headset.
My father, 89, checks out a VR home movie I took this summer
I’ve shown VR videos to my parents, who are 89 and 87, and they get overwhelmed quickly, as anyone does. It’s also difficult, because when you queue up a video and then place the headset on someone else’s head, you aren’t sure what they are actually seeing. You have to coach them through tapping on the side of the headset once the little blue dot is on the play button.
When I had the Omaha board game on my Galaxy S7 I asked Darlene if I should offer to show it to her family when we went back to Rod and Connie’s house the next day. We both agreed it was going to be too much of a hassle; there was a lot else going on.
So these home videos take up a lot of space on the smartphone, and you don’t have an easy way to share their full impact.
I suppose it’s comparable to the production my Dad used to go through to see Super 8 movies he took on his Kodak movie camera. He’d rent a projector at the drug store, and the film would get snarled up as he tried to thread it on the big reels. My mother would laugh uncontrollably, and Dad would get pissed, every time. As a kid I loved the whole show.
Now we shoot videos of the grandkids on our iPhones and text them to my parents or watch them with a single tap. Someday soon I hope it will be that easy to enjoy VR home movies without the hassle.
Meanwhile, it’s fun to experiment with this new way to make home movies that you don’t just watch. You enter them and look around at your life from the inside out.