In a conference room inside Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters yesterday, Facebook Vice President of Product Will Cathcart picked up a phone, eager to show company's newest visual feature: 360-degree video.
After firing up a demo version of Facebook's News Feed, Cathcart scrolled to a video of a Star Wars speeder racing through the deserts of the planet Jakku. As he expanded the video to full screen, Cathcart moved the phone left and right, up and down. And as he moved, the screen's perspective did too, allowing him to explore the surrounding area as the speeder moved traveled through it. Turning the phone left showed a smoking spaceship in the distance, tilting it upward showed the planet's sky, and pointing it behind him revealed space creature ambling about.
The 360-degree video format — where you see from many perspectives instead of one thanks to 360-degree cameras or animation — isn't new to the internet (YouTube already has it) but it is brand new to Facebook, as of today.
Facebook is launching 360 video with a handful of intriguing partners. There will be a report from Afghanistan from Vice, an underwater virtual swim with sharks from Discovery, a workout with LeBron James produced by the Bleacher Report's Uninterrupted, and more.
This is not virtual reality — it's simply a way to watch two-dimensional video in 360 degrees. But Facebook hasn't been shy about expressing a belief that virtual reality, after video, will be the next big content wave, and this experience can be seen as a bridge from 2D video to the VR reality Facebook intends to help create. Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire virtual reality company Oculus Rift in March 2014.
"This is a next step," Cathcart explained.
For now, the 360-degree experiences will be available only on web and Android devices, with iOS devices to follow in the coming months.
Creating 360-degree video isn't easy. It requires multiple cameras and it isn't especially easy to edit. So most people posting 360-degree videos to Facebook will likely be professionals, at least in the outset. But once the functionality is built, there's no telling what amateurs might do with it.