Filming Venues in 360° for Stay Up Late / Google Daydream Impact

In early 2018 I was fortunate enough to meet Paul, who runs the local charity in the Brighton area called “Stay Up Late”, a small grassroots organisation promoting the right for people with learning disabilities to have a choice about how they live their lives.

We got talking about how we could use immersive technology, specifically 360° film viewed through Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, to benefit the Stay Up Late members in regards to attending events and gigs at local venues.

We wanted to explore whether the ability to view a venue virtually in VR would increase social confidence within the viewer, specifically those with learning disabilities, autism, Asperger’s and general social anxieties. By visiting a venue and using the power of VR to feel presence and immersed within the space, we wanted to empower them to have the confidence to visit the venue in the real world for events and gigs. The idea being that if they had a more memorable experience and knowledge of the space, what it feels like to collect tickets, go through bag check, learn where the toilets were in relation to the bar, the stage, what these spaces felt and sounded like when full of people, then barriers to entry and any concerns would fade away.

Paul was already experienced in applying for funding for the charity and so, together we set about submitting applications for various small pots of money to acquire some suitable technology that would allow us to test out our theory, with me contributing to the relevant tender sections about benefits of VR and how we would go about utilising the technology accordingly.

Unfortunately we were met with rejections left, right and centre but we were still convinced it was a solid idea, well worth exploring on our own. Thankfully through Make Real, we had access to 360° cameras (Samsung Gear 360), editing experience and with our annual charitable budget for VR4Good // VR4Impact initiatives, my time allowance to visit venues for filming etc.

The Google Jump “Odyssey” 360° Camera

Then I found out about the Google Daydream Impact project initiative, designed to support people looking to use immersive technologies to benefit people, raising profiles and highlighting causes and plights of various groups around the world. So we decided to apply for that and thankfully were selected for support, in the form of provision of a Google Jump 360° camera, and most importantly, Google cloud stitching bandwidth to take the vast amounts of video data and create the high-res spherical videos for hosting and use.

Whilst the purpose of the project was to create content for Stay Up Late members, we wanted to of course involve them in the creation process so we started off holding a VR 101 session, where we invited Paul and a number of members to the Make Real studio to learn about what VR is, how it and the 360° camera work and some best practices for filming, as well as generating a list of local venues we would want to approach to get permission to film at.

We knew that Google would loan the equipment for 6 months, and so we drew up a plan of realistically due to everyone’s availability, of doing one venue a month, starting in June (2018). Whilst it mostly worked out like that, we were able to gain permission from and access to 6 local venues who were keen to work with us on the project. These venues already have excellent awareness of visitors needs and sections of their websites for accessibility, as well as a positive thinking in terms of openness, inclusion and diversity. They were:

Setting up the Google Jump Camera for the 1st time

Using The Old Market Theatre, who we have worked with over the years as part of their ongoing TOMTech series of events, we scheduled a test filming session to work out how to use the kit, now arrived from Google in the US, and what sort of 360° shots and logical venue positions we wanted to film.

In order to test and meet the desire of allowing viewers to feel as if they have visited the venue virtually to gain confidence to do so in the real world, we determined we would need to get a number of 1–2 minute shots, following a typical visitors journey around a venue. So for all venues, we typically aimed to capture the following locations on film:

  • Entrance/s & Exit/s to the building
Series of Panoramic Photos from The Old Market Theatre, Hove
  • Box Office & Cloakroom (where applicable)
Series of Panoramic Photos from Loading Bar — C:\Side_Quest, Brighton
  • Bar area/s
Series of Panoramic Photos from Brighton Komedia
  • Main venue performance space/s
Series of Panoramic Photos from Brighton Dome

Then to allow viewers to experience a venue at their own pace, we ensured where possible to film these location points whilst the venue was closed, so it was peaceful and the viewer could just get an understanding of the space and layout, and then again when the venue was open, to get a fuller picture of what it would feel like to attend an actual event with the noise, buzz and crowds of excited attendees pre-/during/post-show. Signage was always put up at the venues when filming was taking place during active times so that people could avoid being on camera if they so wished. We were unable to film security and bag-check areas in some venues due to contract staff being used or ensuring we weren’t getting implicated in any evidence provision, should anything untoward occur whilst filming, which is a shame in terms of conveying all parts of attending a show but ultimately understandable.

All these films are hosted on YouTube for the 360° video support up to 5K resolution, for viewing either in a magic window within the internet browser window, or in a VR headset such as a Google Cardboard or Oculus Go, via the YouTube VR apps available. 360° photo versions are also available through the recently launched Google Poly Tours website, with information hotspots highlighting key elements of each venue image.

The Google Documentary Filmcrew

As we got towards the end of the filming schedule and expected loan period of the 360° camera kit from Google, we were contacted by the Google Documentary team, who wanted to come and film us filming and cover the process, purpose and some of the members as they virtually view and then attend a real life venue, to highlight the Google Daydream Impact project.

With a bit of back and forth, we were able to find suitable dates to film a venue, quickly upload, stitch, download (which takes many hours of cloud processing) and edit a film together ready for a Stay Up Late member, Christian, to view before visiting the actual venue for an event, all within the few days of time the documentary team over from the US had in Brighton. We expect the documentary will be available to watch on the Google YouTube channel in early 2019.

Stay Up Late get a taste of being on stage at Brighton Komedia

Now that the Google Jump camera has been packaged up and sent back to the US for another project to use, we can think about how we can roll out the concept to more venues throughout Brighton and nationwide.

We’ll be talking with a number of organisations to determine how best to provide equipment, training and editing to scale up the operation and get more venues involved more easily to create and host their own films for customers.

We also want to ensure that the films we have already created and published online serve a purpose and we carry out some user testing to determine whether the intended impact is effective and encourages more people to have a social life and gain the confidence to attend more venues in the real world.

We’ve had a lot of fun filming over the six months but we have to ensure the technology use case has purpose and meaning — more details to come in 2019.

Stay Up Late member Sam got to meet his lifelong gaming studio development hero Imre Jele, from Bossa Studios, whilst filming at ‘Loading Bar — C:\Side_Quest’ during the Brighton Develop games industry conference event being held there at the time

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Sam Watts

Content Partnerships Lead at HTC Vive // Viveport, living the xR life — follow me on Twitter @vr_sam