What user-created content for virtual reality will look like

Facebook is working on apps for virtual reality, chief product officer Chris Cox said at the Code/Media conference Tuesday. And Facebook is confident users will eventually get busy creating their own content.

“You’ll do it, Beyoncé will do it,” Cox said during the event.

It’s likely Cox was referring mainly to video and photos. Virtual reality isn’t suddenly going to make everyone a game developer — that will remain a specialized skill. But we, as social human beings, will continue to produce that waterfall of over-saturated sunsets and babies’ first steps. How we produce and consume them is about to change big time.

The Bublcam shoots video in 360 degrees.

The Bublcam shoots video in 360 degrees.

Reimagining the web for VR

By 2015, we knew how to create a pretty sophisticated web browsing experience for phones and desktops. But it took decades to get us here. VR will certainly draw from the lessons learned, but it faces the same challenges as when we jumped from desktop to mobile. It’s a new medium with different scales and ways to comfortably interact.

It’s already possible to browse Facebook, and the greater web, in VR. Imagine an enormous virtual screen that you can scroll through with an Xbox controller, your hands, or whatever other input device you are using. It’s pretty much the same experience as staring at it on your desktop. Boring.

A "menu" in Oculus Cinema.

A “menu” in Oculus Cinema.

A few sites have been reimagined as VR apps. During a visit to Survios last year, I put on an Oculus headset and was met with an endless stream of icons representing YouTube videos. They curved around me and stacked up farther than I could see.

It felt a little more awe-inspiring than the standard YouTube experience, but wasn’t that different. You still click on an icon to expand a video and view it.

It would be simple for Facebook to take a similar approach at first. If you download its fairly unpopular Paper app, you can get a sense of what your feed looks like broken down into modules of content. It’s a pleasant way to browse social content.

Since Facebook owns Oculus, it would be nice to see the company take a more radical approach. It reinvented how we go about social interaction, after all. It’s in a good place to intelligently invent our experience in an entirely new medium.

A fresh breed of camera

There are a few apps for creating 360-degree photos with a mobile phone, but videos are more difficult. Creating 360-degree, 3D content has traditionally required specialized equipment essentially made up of a bunch of cameras rigged together.

That’s changing. Independently of virtual reality, 360-degree cameras in the sub-$1,000 category have been grabbing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in crowdfunding campaigns over the last two years. Many are close to shipping to their first backers. In a few years, it’s easy to see them hitting that GoPro user niche.

Giroptic's 360 degree camera.

Giroptic’s 360 degree camera.

The big boom would come from integrating VR cameras into mobile devices. I recently met with Lucid CEO Han Jin, who posed an interesting idea: Not all VR content needs to be a full 360 degrees. Lucid’s LucidCam is a flat disc that shoots 3D video in just 180 degrees. Jin is working on selling LucidCam as a standalone product, but mentioned that it might be a good fit for phones too. We already sport camera lenses on the backs of our mobile devices — it wouldn’t be hard to add a second.

Production challenges

LucidCam also gets around another barrier to adoption: You can hold it out in front of you like any normal camera. It’s really tricky shooting with a 360-degree camera. It sees everything, including you. That means if you hold the camera, your face will block a good portion of the field of view.

The alternatives are to mount the camera on a tripod or turn yourself into a tripod. We are already priming ourselves for this with the most beloved and hated tech of 2015: the selfie stick. Raise a 360-degree camera above your head and you get a pretty good shot.

Jaunt is a pro-level 360 degree camera.

Jaunt is a pro-level 360 degree camera.

Training your tech-challenged aunt how to properly hold a 360-degree camera will be as fun as it was to train her on her first Mac. And chances are her footage will still be shaky and cockeyed — a nausea-inducing combo in VR. Does a limited-field of view camera sound appealing yet?

More than Oculus Rift

Facebook might own Oculus, but there’s no way it will only show VR content in the acclaimed headset. There’s Samsung’s Gear VR, and a multitude of other mobile-based headsets that are cropping up. Facebook’s apps are already available across all platforms, and I don’t see that changing.

A 360 degree image taken with Giroptic's camera

A 360 degree image taken with Giroptic’s camera

Don’t be shocked if VR content starts to show up in your regular Facebook stream. YouTube already plans to support 360-degree content. That probably means you’ll be able to pan around from within your browser, much like you already do in Google’s Street View. Facebook might consider something similar to ensure anyone on any platform can view VR content posted to the site.

Samsung’s Gear VR headset is already on shelves, and Oculus Rift is vaguely scheduled to be released later this year. Most people won’t feel a pull to create 360-degree content for a few years, but if Facebook gets its way we will all be consuming it much sooner.