What are the key differences between 360 video and virtual reality?

What are the key differences between 360 video and virtual reality? As co-Founder of Prescription – a London-based creative content marketing agency – David's role is that of strategic advisor and mentor to the Board, serving as Executive Chairman. David brings his innovation and digital agency start-up experience to Prescription which is positioned as a challenger looking to disrupt traditional branding, content marketing and advertising.


The debate about whether 360 video should be classed as virtual reality is one that's filled with swings and roundabouts.

On the one hand, does it really matter what it's classed as? argued a previous VR Tech article, and on the other, bad 360 experiences can put potential VR enthusiasts off the medium as a whole. 

Therefore, we took a look at what exactly makes virtual reality experiences different to 360 video, to explore the reasons why people may have a problem referring to it as one or the other.

The practical differences

The main difference between 360 video and virtual reality is the point of consumption.

Both share the same technical production processes and essentially output the same result, but with 360, the user experiences the video on a flat 2D screen (smartphone, computer screen, etc) while with virtual reality, they use a headset.

Clearly ownership of headsets and the need to be in a controlled environment makes VR harder to scale. If you want millions of views, then 360 video is much more likely to be the target consumption medium.

The emotional differences

With the practical considerations out of the way, we focus on the impact that we’re trying to create with our content. VR will always deliver a deeper and more engaging user experience as long as the user commits to the activity and submits to the process.

Essentially, the viewer sits down (walking about is not recommended) while someone blindfolds them, covers their hearing and then transmits an alternative reality directly to their brain.

They need to be a very willing participant for this to be a positive experience. This therefore tends also to be something that happens in small, select numbers. Organised events, theme parks, structured presentations, etc, are all likely formats.

360 video is a lot less invasive. In fact, it sits at the opposite end of the commitment spectrum.

We think it makes prudent sense to keep the distinctions obvious by referring to 360 video and VR in terms of their strict definitions

Viewers will typically enjoy 360 video on their smartphones at their leisure and without fear of mind altering effects or embarrassing themselves. That said, the level of emotional engagement is much lower than with VR.

We still have the novelty factor, but that will quickly become less and less relevant over time. 360 video, however, can be played out to millions of users. No special equipment or controlled environments are needed.

Content creation 

Irrespective of practical and emotional considerations, we would suggest that the real challenge is in the definition and creation of the content itself.

At Prescription we talk about 'Story Triggers'. Whatever the video, and whichever the format, it needs to tell a story that resonates with the viewer and which will trigger some sort of response. This is key for us and the people we work with.

There's no difference in the physical equipment used to film and create both VR and 360 experiences.

The main consideration, however, is that VR requires a much higher resolution video with multiple camera shots and perfect stitching in order to really work for viewers. 360 video is a lot more forgiving.

It's important to remember that VR and 360 video is in relatively early stage adoption.

Not many people outside of the industry fully understand the mediums and it will take time for people to change how they refer to 360 video in terms of lumping it in with VR.

In the meanwhile, we think it makes prudent sense to keep the distinctions obvious by referring to 360 video and VR in terms of their strict definitions. 

There is still a very long way to go for these film-making techniques to evolve and I would expect there may well be a hybrid 360/VR experience that has yet to be created.

Such a model would most likely go a very long way to opening up the scaling issues with current VR.  Perhaps we need to see 360 video embedded in VR – or vice versa. Now that would be interesting.

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