I was hiking around Point Lobos this past weekend (see photo above) when I realized I had forgotten to bring along my new favorite gadget, the Ricoh Theta S, which is a new camera for taking 360 degree photos and videos. It's one of the more affordable options out there for creating 360 degree content. It features two cameras -- one on the front and one on the back -- and on-board software which automatically stitches those front and back images and videos together into seamless spherical panoramas which are best viewed using a VR headset (you can also just look at the results on your smartphone, but you don't get the full effect of being immersed within the images or videos).
I was kicking myself for forgetting the Ricoh Theta S because I was in exactly the kind of spot where even a strikingly beautiful standard photo or video would fall short in conveying the full grandeur of my surroundings. Obviously, a spherical panorama, especially one taken by a lower-end 360 degree camera like mine, would not be entirely successful at this either, but it would be a better approximation of the time and place I was experiencing than a regular photo, and I felt a pang of regret for not being able to capture that aspect of the moment. I thought about the other times that I'd been in a stunning location like this. I didn't have the opportunity to record those moments in 360 degrees before because the technology wasn't available, at least not to regular people like me. Now I did have the technology for capturing one of those moments, and I'd screwed it up by leaving my camera at home.
Over the past few days I've thought a lot about that feeling of regret and where it came from. I've often wondered how our perceptions of scenes captured in old black and white photos would be changed if they had been recorded in color. Consider how rare it is to see color photos or film footage of World War II -- now imagine if the entire war had been documented that way. Will we have similar feelings of loss when we look back at representations of the world before we were able to it capture it in 360 degrees? Will future generations feel like there are vital aspects of life which were lost to time because we couldn't capture the world more fully? Maybe, maybe not, but I've been thinking a lot lately about the effect VR will have on how we share our lives. Immersive photos and videos offer the possibility of far more intimate, empathic, and emotional experiences than anything which can be done with a traditional photograph or video because they create a richer and more accurate representation of the world as someone else experiences it. Our view of the past is always going to be shaped by the media that was available at the time for recording it. There's no reason to believe that the advent of immersive photos and videos won't have an impact on how future generations look back on the present.
Of course we're still a long way off from realizing the full potential of all this stuff. The quality of the cameras we're using to capture these images and of the headsets we'll use to view them will only improve over time, increasing the fidelity of these experiences and bringing us ever closer to recreating what it's like to actually be somewhere. In a few years you won't need to carry around a separate device for creating VR content -- smartphones will come with front and back cameras specially designed for taking seamless 360 degree photos and videos. Lowering the barrier to creation will cause an explosion of activity, and while it's more difficult than it should be to share 360 photos and videos with other people today, it's a problem that a lot of companies are going to go after. Eventually we'll have plenty of great options. In the meantime I'm trying to make a habit of bringing my Ricoh Theta S with me wherever I go, just in case.