360 Video 

Eric Cheng gets up close to a shark.

Eric Cheng gets up close to a shark.

Most Silicon Valley heavyweights don’t take time out from their office job to get face to face with apex predators.

Eric Cheng is the head of immersive media at Facebook, but he’s also a professional underwater photographer who uses his work to call for shark conservation.

In Sydney to promote Tales by LightSeason 2, a photography adventure series set to air on the National Geographic in late October, Cheng sat down with Mashable to discuss the future of 360 video on social media and how his work as a photographer influences his approach.

What does it mean to be the “head of immersive media” at Facebook?

That’s an interesting question, because it probably means something very different longterm than it does in the short term. 

Longterm, I think it’s about media that doesn’t fit into traditional 2D media, a still picture or a 2D video, but something that’s interactive. Right now, the focus is very much on 360 video and virtual reality. 

IMAGE: ERIC CHENG

Your two jobs seem to crossover, because some of the best 360 video so far tends to explore National Geographic-style imagery.

Brands like National Geographic are experimenting a lot because [360 video] does have the potential to show you what an environment is like. It’s allowing the viewer to be the storyteller.

One of the challenges with any form of new media is that the entire ecosystem, from content creation to consumption, is very challenging. There are hurdles literally at every step.

Underwater photography is very similar in that it’s very gear-intensive. The equipment is custom, it’s not manufactured in volume so it’s expensive, and it takes a lot of technical mastery. That’s what’s also happening in 360 — it’s very difficult to create content.

I’m focused on building out the infrastructure to support ease of sharing and storytelling.

What are the style mistakes people are making in 360 video?

The language around storytelling in 360 has not really been figured out yet. 

I think most of the time we see people going back to traditional ways of storytelling. One issue is that a large percentage of viewers might miss something. They are looking in the wrong direction, and part of that is because the storyteller hasn’t crafted the experience to be consumed without a huge amount of effort from the viewer.

People will by default stick the camera in the middle of something, which can force the viewer to look behind them. It might get in the way of the message. I find it very distracting if I’m asked to turn around.

It’s one thing to get a sense of a space if you’ve got a still image that’s panoramic, but if you have a long form story, I think it’s less effective.

IMAGE: ERIC CHENG

Do you think 360 video faces a challenge aesthetically given it has to operate within the very fixed style of Facebook’s newsfeed?

I think that’s a question that’s bigger than immersive media. It’s a general media question, because we’ve gone from viewing in theatres and TVs to viewing on little 5-inch rectangles.

I’ve seen a big change in how all media is presented. You see a lot of talking head shows, especially with subtitles. If you took that content and played it on a big TV it would be horrible.

Those are things that Facebook is certainly experimenting with. If you have a storyline, and part of that story takes place off camera and you’re relying on the viewer in a VR headset to look in that direction, what’s the translation?

It could be things like automated camera movements, which Facebook has already implemented in the form of Guide. If everyone is looking at this point in the movie, why doesn’t the camera move there automatically when you’re not controlling it?

How long before the technology will be accessible enough for the average consumer to make high-quality 360 video?

In some ways we’re there. One thing that I’ve been doing is trying to unlock panoramic content. That’s hard to view in digital formats because we have very small displays.

We’re also seeing all the camera manufacturers experiment heavily in 360. I don’t think anyone knows what it’s going to be yet, but everyone sees a huge amount of potential.

Is there a close relationship between camera manufacturers and Facebook?

Yes, I’m the primary contact right now for this space. [Camera makers] have to work in the sharing ecosystem. If you think about the sharing ecosystem for 360, it’s basically Facebook, YouTube and custom viewers. 

Are people repeat viewing 360 content? Given it does require more interaction, it might not always invite it.

I haven’t looked at the data around that. I don’t think we’ve seen any good examples of longer form storytelling that really invites casual, repeat viewing.

IMAGE: ERIC CHENG

How does your work interact with Facebook’s VR headset, the Oculus Rift?

Right now, we’re still trying to figure out how people use headsets. I tend to view in a session-based experience where I sit down and watch all the things I’ve encountered during my day or week. It feels like that’s how people are viewing content.

Does Facebook need a different ecosystem for this type of immersive content — perhaps a separate app?

It’s likely, could be. I’m not sure what form it could take. One issue is that 360 content is not very discoverable in [the Oculus or Samsung Gear VR] headset. We haven’t seen the feed ranking system being applied to 360 content for headset yet. 

You see the content appear in your normal Facebook newsfeed alongside a picture of your kid, but it’s really up to the viewer to save it so they can then see it in their headset. I think that has to change over time. 

There’s certainly no public timeline around that, but it is something we’re looking at because it is a distinct form of media. 

On the one hand, it’s been great that it’s showing up alongside normal content because that’s the best way for it to reach people who are probably interested. It doesn’t have full mainstream penetration yet.

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