Facebook really wants people to understand the value of virtual reality.
After spending $3 billion to buy Oculus in 2014, the tech giant has been developing a wide range of VR initiatives, ranging from the hardware and software behind the high-end Oculus Rift to the software powering Samsung’s mobile Gear VR. There’s also been the promotion of 360-degree video, and just this week, the beta launch of the company’s first social VR efforts for the Rift, as well as the announcement of a pair of VR cameras capable of shooting in six-degrees-of-freedom, a key technique for capturing professional-level 3D, 360-degree live action video.
Today, Facebook also unveiled a software development kit, compatible with major game engines like Unreal or Unity–which together power a large segment of VR games and other experiences–that will let creators of content for any PC-based VR system give their users the ability to easily capture 360 video or still images of their experience that they can then share on Facebook or other social platforms.
Imagine playing a first-person shooter VR game and being able to hit a button to automatically capture 360-degree video of a battle. Or you’re playing a racing game and you could shoot immersive video of the race track. Or you’re viewing an immersive marketing video showing the interior of a new car. You could then share content like that on Facebook or elsewhere, either to view in a browser or even in 360 degrees on a headset like a Gear VR or Oculus Rift.
It could work the same for any 360-degree content, said Chetan Gupta, Facebook’s product manager for 360 Media, with developers having the discretion to decide how to let their users capture the imagery–both in terms of how to actually start the recording, as well as where the virtual camera or cameras are located.
As with many other VR initiatives, the idea behind the new 360 Capture SDK is to get more people hooked on the idea of 360 imagery–which over time could lead to more people trying VR themselves, and ultimately buying VR hardware. That’s Facebook’s hope at least. Whether it will work is hard to tell, especially because VR has yet to become a mainstream consumer technology. Despite hundreds of thousands of Rifts and millions of Gear VRs being sold, virtual reality is still a niche technology.
But Facebook is willing to play the long game. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told investors that they should be patient and give VR a few years before expecting mass adoption. And the market is showing no signs of proving Zuckerberg wrong.
Gupta said that because Facebook wants to ensure that people have a good experience watching recordings of VR content, there are some hardware requirements that must be met in order to work with the new SDK. First, the minimum resolution is 1080p for watching within Facebook or on a desktop or mobile browser, and 4K for watching on a VR headset. The SDK can capture in both resolutions.
The key to the SDK is a process called cube-mapping, Gupta explained, which Facebook used instead of stitching, the more traditional method for creating 360-degree imagery. That’s because cube-mapping is a much more efficient process that allows less powerful computers to generate imagery of the required quality.
Cube-mapping, a technique common in gaming, is also behind recent innovations in the way YouTube presents 360-degree video.