YouTube Developing Live 360-Degree Video Capability

The video platform seeks to extend its lead in virtual reality with live immersive broadcasts.

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YouTube is developing the capability to livestream 360-degree video on its platform, BuzzFeed News has learned. Multiple sources familiar with the company’s plans confirmed YouTube has been meeting with 360-degree camera manufacturers about adding support for immersive live-streamed video broadcasts to its platform. The launch timeline remains unclear.

Live 360-degree video would be the latest in a series of moves the company has made since launching 360-degree video last March, in an attempt to own the next big video format. In June, it launched support for Google Cardboard, which lets viewers experience 360-degree videos by converting their smartphones into basic headsets. In November, YouTube debuted 3-D capabilities — what it calls “virtual reality videos” — that are only available in Google Cardboard and give immersive videos a sense of depth not possible with straightforward 360-degree video. This month, it hired a “Global VR Evangelist” to recruit more content partners to develop VR content for its platform. Live 360-degree video would be perhaps the biggest step its taken since first launching support for the format.

Currently, certain 360-degree cameras can live-stream content, but the video feeds they create aren't broadcast quality; they’re intended to give camera operators a quick and dirty sense of the video they’re capturing. What YouTube is in the process of creating is a platform for broadcasting live 360-degree video to a global audience. And the difficulties associated with making that happen are prodigious.

A 360-degree video is typically created from multiple videos that must be spliced together. Most 360-degree cameras have two or more wide-angle lenses, each doing its own video capture. The videos from these lenses are then “stitched” together in post-production to create a spherical image. Live-streaming 360-degree video might require that stitching process to occur in real time.

YouTube has already developed technology to stitch a 360-degree video while it’s being uploaded. The GoPro Odyssey — a 16-camera rig developed by Google’s JUMP program — takes the footage from each camera and automatically stitches it together while it’s being uploaded. Yet the Odyssey is a unique use case because YouTube knows the exact specifications of the camera and relative placement of each of its lenses, and therefore how to stitch the video seamlessly.

Bringing live 360-degree video to users, however, would mean ingesting feeds from all sorts of cameras. And that could prove a daunting task without prior knowledge of each camera’s specs and idiosyncrasies — or the ability to identify them on the fly.

One potential solution to this would be for YouTube to establish a set of standard specifications for 360-degree camera manufacturers. Given its prowess in the video-streaming market, YouTube could presumably win some cooperation from the industry. Another possible solution would be to develop stitching software that could accommodate feeds from a variety of cameras. Both would require significant effort on YouTube's part.

But there is a third possibility: 360-degree cameras capable of stitching video themselves. There are a few such cameras available now and others headed to market later this year. It’s possible that YouTube’s live 360 initiative could be limited to these devices alone — initially, anyway.

YouTube declined to comment for this story.

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