Big Sphere is a spherical interface for the public display of 360 video.
The interface is embedded with a wireless optical sensor which is invisible to users. Rotating the sphere rotates the 360 video. The system not only eliminates the awkwardness of a VR headset— it allows multiple people to experience 360 together.
Concept, Interaction Design, 360 Video Production, Web Development
In late 2016 I filmed more than eight hours of 360 degree video footage at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock. My goal was to present the footage in a way that multiple people could experience together, navigate together, and talk about with one another.
As an experience, 360 video is only as strong as the interface used to navigate it. Headsets are isolating and awkward; sharing on Facebook or Vimeo requires people to click and drag their computer mouse around clumsily.
Could I design an interface that allows multiple people to watch 360 footage together, in a way that feels immersive and seamless?
For my first prototype, I designed a large projection dome which people could sit underneath to watch the video above. I was inspired by Paul Bourke's Mirror Dome projection format, which Ben Coonley had recently brought to life at the Whitney. But unlike Coonley, who displayed a static 360 environment, I was using 360 video footage that was often in motion.
To see what it would feel like to watch my footage projected onto a dome from below, I reached out to the East Village Planetarium, who graciously agreed to show my footage on their full size planetarium screen.
Watching my footage on this big dome screen was incredible- and then it was nauseating. A larger-than-life dome display simply doesn't pair well with a moving horizon.
I also found out that the planetarium projectors specifically are not very compatible with recorded video, because the projectors are limited in their "Dynamic Range," or ability to display contrast and color. This results in people with darker skin tones appearing silhouetted.
In casual presentations of my 360 footage, I found that many people were moved simply by the experience of watching the 360 footage on a laptop screen with other people. This surprised me, as it requires an awkward amount of effort to click and drag a 360 video around with a mouse. I wanted to create a way to amplify what feels good about the experience of watching 360 video on a screen, but enable people to navigate it more seamlessly.
My new design inspiration came through researching the history of the computer mouse. The first version, developed by the British Royal Navy in the 1950s, was a big bowling ball on top of gears to record X and Y rotation.
A giant sphere that you rotate with your hands seemed like the perfect fit for handling a spherical video.
I reached out to my friends Dave & Gabe to borrow a large crystal ball they fabricated for another project. To turn it into a giant trackball, I took apart a wireless optical mouse and secured it inside of the sphere's base, with the optical sensor laser pointed at the ball to track the ball's movements. The inner mechanism is invisible to the user.
Rotating the physical sphere rotates the 360 video.
Most testers said the sphere felt engaging, interactive, and fun, and many who weren't familiar with 360 said they felt much more comfortable using this interface than a headset. But nearly everyone reported it was too responsive.
The initial ball-to-video movement ratio was 1:1, so I hosted the video in the browser to encode cursor easing.
I found that the final easing formula can be endlessly fine-tuned, which is exciting in its implications for using spheres of different materials, or for programming different effects and interactions.
A custom rigged wireless optical sensor is embedded within the base of the sphere. The optical sensor's laser tracks the ball's movements. The interface acts as a computer mouse, communicating with a custom aframe.js node framework in the browser to slow down and ease the rotation. The interface is wireless, and the inner workings of the interface are invisible to the user, making the experience feel seamless.
Dave & Gabe, Neil Cline, The Lower East Side Girls Club, Standing Rock