Toilet Ready?

"Toilet Ready" is how I have been referring to video that does not require me to spin all the way around or look behind me. In other words, video that I can watch while sitting on a toilet. As Golan Levin once said: "You can't sit backwards on a toilet"1.

What am I talking about?

Most 360 video content today requires the viewer to move their head in order to move the frame.2 Therefore, how the viewer is seated or standing affects the viewer's relationship to the content. Different points in the frame will have the viewer contorted or twisted in different ways. Further, this positioning of the viewer will affect the speed at which the viewer can navigate the space, their willingness or ability to continue tracking a POI, and as their comfort level.

In other words, if I am twisted halfway around to see content "behind" me, that's not comfortable, and I can't keep twisting. This isn't Hypernom. Twisting users every way about isn't a comedic side effect and/or the point. I'll go as far as to say that it just might be... bad.

Photo from this paper about Hypernom.3

Many viewers, including myself, watch films while sitting in chairs.4 Those chairs don't necessarily swivel. Generally, viewers can turn all the way around to see content anywhere in the frame, but content "behind" their forward position is going to be uncomfortable, as will content that forces the viewer to spin around multiple times. Even standing, spinning can cause dizziness. And, of course, more movement leads to more motion sickness, especially with less-than-perfect tracking, such as that of the Google cardboard.

Let's break this down.


First, let's make some reasonable assumptions.

  1. The viewer begins looking forward, at the center of the equirectangular frame
  2. The viewer begins in a position comfortable for them, with their feet, shoulders, and head aligned.
  3. The viewer can easily turn around, look up, and look down. They are probably in a swivel chair or standing and have no consistent 'home' position.
  4. Without swiveling or moving their feet, the viewer can turn at least 90 degrees to either side, up, and down. They can, thanks to their proprioception, always find their forward, starting, position.

Assumptions number 1, 2 and 4 we will accept without further inquiry.5 Let us no longer assume #3. Consider a viewer seated in a regular non-swiveling chair, in a sofa, lying down in a bed or long-ways on a couch, or even in a traditional movie seat.

We lose the ability to continuously twist points of interest or the viewer around the frame. We lose the ability for content to "lie" at any point around the sphere, as all points can't be considered equal anymore. Roughly, the further you are from 'home', the more uncomfortable the viewer probably is - twisting their neck/body. Keeping POI's at those points for extended periods of time is troublesome for the viewer.

What we gain, however, is the viewer's ability to quickly "snap" to looking straight again. If we put something important there, allow the viewer to look away, we can trust that they can find their 'home position' - by lining up their shoulders and head with the unmoving feet/waist - without spatial audio or even significant visual cues. This is helpful when viewing content. For what it's worth, Facebook's web 360 player deemed it appropriate to include an icon that allows viewers to do just this, no clicking or dragging required.

While watching WITHIN's Clouds Over Sidra, I would plant my feet off from my swivel chair in order to make a marker, so to speak, of where a speaker was positioned. I would look around the scene away from the narrator, and quickly glance back at them in order to "check in" from time to time.

For creators, when deciding to create 360 video that has a home position, and one becomes less comfortable as they stray from that position, I have been considering the shots as having elastic points of interest. Consider a rubber band attached to the camera and the starting position. Camera twists, rubber band stretches. Don't leave it stretched out for too long, or wrap it around itself.

When thinking about standing up, or using swiveling chairs, I have been thinking of this viewing experience as angle-ambivalent. No location around the viewer has any precedence or preference for the viewer, and their ability to move around to/from there is equal. They also may, eventually, lose track of where they are located in the real world - so finding their way back to a known point on a sphere requires clues all from spatial audio and video, or from environmental influences (such as environmental lighting, or banging one's knee against a nearby desk)6 - not a trivial task of 'straightening up'.

Do users care?

I have found, observationally, that many 360 videos are currently novel enough that viewers don't tend to mind discomfort. That is, they don't hold it against the content or content creators. Viewers tend to assume that either this is just part of "that Google cardboard stuff", "a thing that happens in VR", or don't really think about it. Speaking personally as someone who watches a lot of 360 content - I don't feel the same way. I hate twisting and snapping my head around arbitrarily over and over again. Once the novelty of 360 video 'experiences' wears off, this critique will come to the forefront for more viewers than just myself. Many viewers may have already gotten tired of this content after 1 or 2 videos, and claim to "not understand" the appeal.

Users may not care right now, but they will. Or rather, they already care - but don't realize. They have a poor experience but are not able to articulate why.

Once, while watching a "flying" 360 drone video, I spent the entire video with my neck craned down towards the floor. It's much less comfortable or awe-inspiring posture than if I was looking straight, or up.7

I would recommend creators adopting some standard graphic or indicator to put at the front of a video, stating the preferred environment to watch the videos in. Many 360 videos that have spatial audio do this already, asking the viewer to please use headphones.

Virtual reality teams have adopted the terms 'room scale VR' and 'seated VR' to set expectations on user mobility. Similar terms will be beneficial for 360 video. I, of course, propose "Toilet Ready" - a tongue-in-cheek name. I also recommend referring to content that is angle-ambivalent as "360 video", by default, and toilet ready video as - if not "Toilet Ready" - "Seated 360 video".

I am proposing this because almost every 360 video that is out there right now, already, could use angle-ambivalent viewing. Using this as a default expectation is fair. It's backwards compatible, so to speak.

Another Option

There's another assumption we are making that I didn't list above: The viewer must turn their head in order in order to rotate the film scene. What if we don't need to be worrying about all of this as content-creators? How about we just give the user some input that can 'fake' the head motion.

Potential UI for easier viewing:

  • Hand controller, buttons, joystick, scroll wheel, etc.
  • Toggle on and off head tracking, allowing a user inchworm around a sphere without twisting up their neck.
  • Let a user 'whip' around with quickly accelerating head motion that turns the frame faster than tracked acceleration.
  • A hand tracking system that lets a user paw/swipe the air to twist the sphere.

Should a platform implement one of these systems, or such a 'workaround' for head movement become standard for platforms; then the considerations here would be largely moot.

Is it compromising, or audience-aware?

Creators often choose to ignore audience-platform or environmental issues, in favor of delivering "the best content they can". For example, audio engineers could mix a track without any low-end frequencies so as not to 'blow out' on cheap earbuds, but they don't. They mix on [and for] high-end audio systems. Get an audio engineer talking about 'The Loudness War' of the 90's and you'll probably hear someone speaking very passionately about delivering the best content they can.

If you have ever read the following sentence, you know what compromise may look like: "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen." This is usually when a film is re-edited for a different aspect ratio. A compromise many filmmakers are willing to make.

360 video can be considered an interactive medium. The user's ability to look around them is central to the viewing experience. As creators, we must pay attention to the audience.

Further, I argued above that editing our 360 films to 'work' while sitting in non-swivel chairs is not only not necessarily a compromise, but has its advantages.

Frankly, this medium is so new - we aren't really sure what 'creative potential' one might be 'sacrificing'. I, for one, am happy to have more guidelines to help me decide where and how to structure video, and two - am totally willing to eat all of these words should I be proven wrong.

  1. Not strictly true, as Golan will admit. My attention was brought to an episode of South Park which explored the issue. Let's not get into it. 

  2. Also VR. What I have to say here applies to VR applications, but I am explicitly keeping that outside of my domain, and just worrying about 360 video. Suffice to say, the role of physical presence, posture, and 'local' environment, and how that all affects immersive media platforms is a large question with a lot to unpack. 

  3. Vi Hart, Andrea Hawksley, Henry Segerman and Marc ten Bosch. "Hypernom: Mapping VR Headset Orientation to S^3". Proceedings of Bridges 2015: Mathematics, Music, Art, Architecture, Culture (2015): 387–390. 

  4. Citation Needed. Perhaps most people know to stand up to watch 360 films, and I just have a lazy group of peers. Let's not get tied up in this, and we can assume that seated video watching is a worthwhile goal. 

  5. Yet. 

  6. This desk would not be angle-ambivalent for the viewer. 

  7. Perhaps the end of the video really redeemed it. I wouldn't know, I stopped watching before I got there.