Saturation And Focus

360 Videos can be accused of being boring, uninteresting, long, or unfocused1; but only one of those criticisms speaks to the heart of the medium. Focus. How do we consider content focus in a medium where not all of the content can even be shown to the user at any given time.

In 360 video, attention has to be paid as much to what the user is ignoring as to what they are not. If a video only ever has one point of interest (POI) in any given shot; then why is it in 360? There is a balance to be found between controlling a user's attention (limited POI's) and giving them a lot of content to scan (too many POI's). See this post for more on that.

For the viewer, they are being asked to make a decision - to choose where to look. How this decision affects the viewer is going to have a huge effect on the medium as a tool for storytelling. So far, much of my research and considerations have been about bringing attention to the story, not the medium of telling.

Of course, taken to it's extreme, such control is merely a film with the user as active (albeit, limited to framing) cinematographer.2 We don't trust the user to edit, so we continue to edit for them. It's as close to regular film as this medium can get, and that can be a good thing. Like a cut scene in a video game, there will be times when it is appropriate for us to 'take control' in order to better tell a story.

Gaze doesn't have to matter

Consider a scene that's the same all around, radially symmetric. Does it matter where the audience gazes? No - of course not. How about an establishing shot in a kitchen. Does it matter if the audience see's the messy sink before the piled up pots? Or if they miss the messy sink because they were looking at the dirt floor? It doesn't. If all (as in all angles from the camera) of our kitchen has been set-decorated to tell our story (the messy representation of an untidy life), then the effect (an unkempt kitchen, this person doesn't have it together) is basically the same to the audience no matter how they look around, or where.

When creating 360 films, having scenes where the gaze doesn't matter is extremely liberating. When done well, such a shot can give creators breathing room. Further, it gives the audience a break from having to decide where to look constantly. Such constant decision making is tiring for an audience - an audience that came to have a story told to them, not to tell a story themselves.3

Today, let's talk about when not to guide (or control) the viewer's gaze.

When to give up control

There a multitude of effects that we can impart on a viewer. Without yet getting into the artistic when or why to use these, let's go over the different ways a user can feel when left to freely look around the film.

  • Visual Saturation (soaking it all in).
  • Visual Isolation (void of information)
  • Intentional Searching (find this)
  • Unexpected Discovery (curiosity)
  • Examination/Atmosphere (instant understanding)

Visual Saturation

We overwhelm the user with content, and ???remove from them the ability to judge the content for themselves.???

360 is good at saturating you with information. It can flood you. So when should we flood a user with a zillion POI's, oversaturate them with pure data? Simple - and this is going to sound obvious -

How about: - When the sum that all of the imagery creates is greater than any individual piece. Things like mood boards, the classic 'training montage', or even a simple establishing-type shot of a busy scene with many small details that contribute to the mood, the vibe, the aesthetic. - When your directorial aim is to overwhelm the user, like in some action scenes or when a movie montages TV news stations to quickly show the state of current events. - When the user's ability to select between different images plays a key component in their enjoyment of the piece. Educational content makes a strong contention for being applicable here. - When multiple images exist at the same time on a timeline, and the conservation of that timeline is significant. - Showing multiple versions of the same image, letting the user 'hunt' for the differences. (poignantly). - When the director is building up to a paradigm shift; a juxtaposition of information - cutting from being saturated with information to being isolated, or focused. The number of POI's (or general 'business') has an effect on the viewer, one that can be manipulated creatively. Imagine the architect scene from the matrix in 360, as all of the Neo's transition into just one. It may be easier to think of examples involving audio - layering audio in an overwhelming way is easy. Shifts are going to be important. In a skydiving video, for example; what part is interesting? It's not being in the plane going up. And it isn't the skydiving footage - slow moving, blurry, no audio, basically just a satellite view of the planet from Google maps. The interesting part is when the skydiver jumps. When the camera travels through the "porthole", the opening of a plane and the world the viewer is in shifts. Also interesting - landing, for similar reasons. Consider someone afraid of flying. What's the scariest part? Takeoffs and landings. 360 video creators should heavily play with transitioning between environments within the shot. This has not been touched too much in many 360 films, as camera movement has posed other technical and aesthetic challenges.

  • When the background information in a scene is as significant as the foreground information. Not just if setting or scenery is important, but if the director is playing the foreground and background against each other, or building to the eventual combination of these two planes of imagery. In 360, these techniques are no longer defined in [just] planes [or spheres?] of depth (back, fore); but in angles.

Visual Isolation

When watching a 360 film and there is nothing/everything specific to look at, ask yourself why. This is a choice the filmmaker made, and for a reason. This choice must be for a reason. Simply giving the viewer nothing to look at for no reason is bad storytelling.

Intentional Searching

My "working definition" of engagement is the following: A piece of media can be said to be engaging if it allows the audience to ask themselves questions, and then go about the process of answering them within the piece.

Ask the audience a question (who are you, Dora?) and you have bad educational science videos that we all remember from school, and slept through. Get the audience to ask themselves a question, and you have something that can be as engaging as Minecraft.

This concept applies to everything I'm talking about today - and these concepts will overlap - but mostly to the idea of allowing the audience to search for something.

Sure, we can pull a Where's Waldo, and ask the audience to find something. Or we can present them with clues, puzzle pieces, and allow them to pick up the task of the search themselves. Occasionally cut to the main character looking for something, and then cut to a busy scene. What's the effect on the user? It depends on if they know what the character is searching for.

By not answering that question, we can get the audience to ask it for themselves - what are they looking for? And then turn around and search and try to figure it out. Consider which horror movies have had you glued to your seats - those where you knew what the bad guy looked like, or those you didn't. How many films had a character running from shadows? Once all the pieces are revealed, the films lose potential power and must conclude themselves on kinetic energy alone. In other words, the third act of the story; that bad guy reveal is the second act turning point.

So what about 360 video. Searching is searching around themselves for a frame. Play with knowledge of what characters know and don't know.


  1. Citation: my subjective opinion, as well as those shared with me from informal conversations with members of the EleVR team. 

  2. More on this in an upcoming post. 

  3. We speak a lot about audience as collaborator with the author. I don't mean to take this perspective away; I just mean that it shouldn't be all that hard for the audience to collaborate! I aim to figure out how to tell stories on the non-interactive side of the audience-as-collaborator world, where the story is what the story is, and the audience isn't part of its creation so much as it's telling; that the immersion of the media is a tool that provides greater engagement, moments of discovery, and more immediate connection. Not a story that 'tests' the user like a video game, or one that forces the viewer to make tough and cognitively active decisions. This isn't Westworld.