Get ready to immerse yourself in virtual reality.

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360 photo on Machu Picchu in Peru by Daniel Chase of Chasing The World
Credit: © Daniel Chase, Chasing The World

When the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) comes to Las Vegas each year, it tends to take one new, emerging technology trend and slap the world in the face with it.

This year it was 360-degree cameras, which have multiple lenses to capture everything in all directions. The images are then instantly stitched together by software in real-time to produce photos and videos that go far beyond the panoramic photos most smartphones are capable of.

Viewing virtual reality content–and that’s exactly what 360 degrees is all about–in a truly immersive way requires a VR headset such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Samsung Gear VR. They'll cost you anywhere from $99.99 to $799.99, but a far more accessible and traveler-friendly way of exploring in 360 degrees is on Facebook, YouTube, and now Twitter, which announced in December that it’s at last embracing 360-degree video live-streaming via Periscope. It’s easy to view; you just drag your finger left, right, up, or down on the screen to explore the whole image.

Cue a rush of new social media-savvy 360-degree products in Las Vegas. There was Insta360 Air and Insta360 Nano–two clip-on cameras for Android and iPhone phones, respectively–which, like the newly announced Hubblo, can film travel experiences in 360 degrees and broadcast them on social media.

Hubblo has six lenses, and the results can be live-streamed via Wi-Fi or recorded to a micro SD card, all in 4K resolution. Insta360 even announced plans to launch a 360-degree camera that can capture in 8K resolution–that’s about 32 megapixels.

Insta360 Nano.jpg

There are scores of other standalone cameras for this purpose, too, from high-end options like the GoPro Omni, 360fly 4K, Nikon KeyMission, Kodak Pixpro 4KVR36, Samsung Gear 360, and Vuze 3D 360 to more affordable, entry-level products like the Ricoh Theta, LG 360 Cam, and Mokacam's Moka360. Some use multiple lenses, which can mean visible stitching lines, while others have fisheye lenses, which are smoother but lower resolution.

But there remains a key question for anyone exploring the world of 360-degree photography: what is it for?

One thing to consider is live events, from sports and parties to music festivals. “Imagine you take a trip to Glastonbury Festival next year,” says Jingkang Liu, CEO at Insta360. “If you take an Insta360 camera with you for your iPhone or Android smartphone, you can instantly share the full experience immediately with friends and family on Facebook.”

This is one of the best ways to relive an experience in an immersive way, he adds.

Travelers Embrace 360 Photo and Video
Credit: Getty Images

It’s also a format that has tremendous novelty value. “The real value with 360-degree video that a lot of people have not yet realized is the ability to capture a real travel experience and share it with the world,” says TV producer Daniel Chase, who is currently filming the world's first 360-degree virtual reality TV travel documentary, Chasing The World.

He’s discovered that the format is much more intimate than he expected. “I’m not pointing a camera at anyone–I set the camera down and people forget about it, and I'm able to capture these powerful experiences in a very organic way,” he says.

Chase has produced intimate films using these cameras in Nepalese temples, at underground poetry readings in Myanmar, and even at funerals.

“People are so impressed by 360-degree content the first time they experience it, and showing my footage has resulted in so many crazy adventures,” says Chase, who recently filmed from a tiny plane flying over the Amazon River. Locals were so impressed with his video that they called the local pilot.

This new technology is also being used for armchair tourism; Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority itself last year took an Oculus Rift VR headset to travel trade shows to showcase a 360-degree video of a sunset helicopter tour over the city. Quark Expeditions also produced a VR antarctic experience for Facebook showcasing its daily itinerary, including an immersive video of what it’s like to stand in the middle of a penguin colony.

However, filming in 360 degrees is not as easy as it seems. “Camera placement is extremely important,” says Chase. “You have to treat the camera as if it is a person, because someone will be experiencing reality from the point of view of the camera, so if the camera moves, shakes, or tilts unnaturally, it will cause motion sickness when viewed in VR.”

Chase suggests holding the camera as still as possible or mounting it to any moving objects, such as boats, helicopters, or hot air balloons, so the camera moves naturally. You often also have to get out of the shot yourself, which can be challenging, though many devices can be operated remotely via a smartphone app. A tripod helps with stability and height (you don't just want people's feet), and a selfie stick is useful for creating spontaneous shots that aren't dominated by your own arms.

Will it catch on? It's still the early days, with about 600,000 360-degree cameras sold in 2016. “My 360-degree cameras have caught the attention of several other travelers who have since purchased their own rigs,” says Chase. “People are definitely taking interest and I expect to see a huge increase of travelers with 360-degree cameras in the next year.”

There is a lot of hype surrounding virtual reality, but there’s an understanding that if it’s going to succeed, it will be because of user-generated content.

Since they record what they see in all directions, these photos and video can’t be easily cropped or zoomed; what you see is what you get. Adventure travel videos will get more immersive, for sure, but the days are numbered for those immaculate wraparound photos of luxury hotels and resorts on curated websites.

If the camera never lies, then 360 degrees is surely the format that TripAdvisor has been waiting for.