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These two iPhone apps immerse you inside a movie’s world

Movies began in the 1890s as extremely short, soundless, black-and-white streams of picture frames. Since then, they gained sound, color, various frame and screen sizes, and more recently, multiple attempts at recreating 3D. Beyond that, there is the somewhat rare movie-in-the-round format. If you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you may have see one of the Circle-Vision 360 degree movies, which have nine screens in a circle that lets the viewer literally look around as the movie plays. This movie technology has been around for 60 years. So, that concept isn’t new. What is new, however, are two live-action movies that move past even that 360-degree circle and afford a sphere-like field of view that includes looking up and down as well as around.

The first is Google’s free Spotlight Stories app, which began life as the Motorola Spotlight Player for Motorola’s first Android phones. Google recently released a version for Apple’s iPhone as well. The second is the $ 2.99 White Room: 02B3 app for the iPhone and iPad from Roddenberry Entertainment, which is led by the son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Both apps gives the viewer a spherical view of the movie, but they are quite different in several respects.

Spotlight Stories

Prior to Spotlight Stories’ release for the iPhone, the 360 movies for the app were animated. However, with the release of the iPhone app, Google also made available a free five-minute movie titled Help and directed by Justin Lin. Lin was the director of four Fast and Furious movies and is listed as the director of the next Star Trek movie (Star Trek Beyond).

Lin used a combination of special 360-degree video recording, computer graphics, physical sets, and live actors to create a mini-action movie that lets the view look around the world of the movie as it moves through a chase scene from set to set. You can physically move the phone around, up, and down to literally look around the movie world as it progresses. Or, you can use a finger to shift the view while phone remains in place. The movie can be viewed in portrait or landscape modes. While it might seem odd to look at a video in a vertical portrait format, you might prefer it because the iPhone provides a keyhole view into the larger world — and viewing vertically actually lets you see larger “slices” of the world as your turn around in it.

White Room: 02B3

Roddenberry’s White Room: 02B3, on the other hand, places a 360-degree cameras on a table in the middle of a room. It remains stationary while the actors move around the scene. The action never moves from the single room. And, thus, it seems more like a play in a theater than a movie. Unlike Spotlight Stories, the White Room: 02B3 app only plays this one 15-minute 360 movie. And, also unlike Google’s app, the movie is only viewed in landscape mode. The app indicates that the movie will also be available for viewing in special dome theaters.

You need to take a more active role when watching a movie that lets you look around in its world. This is more difficult that dealing with the real world, because of the relatively narrow fields of view in both apps. For me, it meant that I often had to literally “look around” to find the person speaking or the source of a sound.

In a conventional movie, the director not only directs the actors, but also the viewers, by pointing the camera at the important actor or scene. This is not the case when the viewer is free to look anywhere in the movie world. Since the movies progress in a serial fashion, it is easy to miss some action by looking in the wrong part of the world. It encourages viewing these short films multiple times to try to get a better sense of the story. And, perhaps, that is the point of this recording format.

I think that movie producers and directors of these kinds of movies need to develop techniques and cues to help the viewer know where to look, at least in order to create sustained interest in the format. Until then, it seems to me that the format may be better suited to non-fiction, documentary type movies that lets the viewer literally explore a visual world. This is something that the Google Spotlight Stories may be better suited for, since Lin’s movie demonstrates they are able to move through scenes in multiple locations. I have a question out to White Room’s creators asking if their technology can be used in motion, such as walking down a street or through a forest. If so, they will be able to create much more interesting 360 videos that are not limited to a single fixed location.

360 movies, like 3D, have great potential. But, like 3D, it’s taken decades to get to where it is today — and may take years more until the formats finds an interested mass audience.

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