Need a Quick Underwater Fix? Try an Immersive Video!

You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on the latest virtual reality headsets to enjoy an immersive underwater experience.  In fact, you don’t have to spend anything (but a few shekels might add to the experience.)  Let’s start with some definitions, move to equipment and then explore some of the rich content already freely available.

For the purposes of this article, there are two terms you should know:  360 and 3D.

  • 360° videos allow you to turn in any direction and see the action.  For example, if a whale swims past you, you can simply turn around and watch the whale swim away.  The video fills your mobile device screen. You do not need Google Cardboard or any similar equipment to view this content.
  • 3D gives you a stereoscopic version of the content.  Your device will split the content on the screen with one version for each eye.  To see this properly, you will need a headset like Google Cardboard.
3D Video Screenshot
In 3D mode, the field of vision narrows to the content both eyes can see as outlined by the red lines.

A lot of videos support both 360 and 3D, but this doesn’t automatically translate into the best of both worlds.  Using Google Cardboard or similar headset to view 360 content in 3D alters the field of view.  This is because both eyes need to see the same area on each image, but each image (like your actual eyes) are offset.

Without 3D, the viewer gets a different perspective of the content. Since the video fills the entire screen, the aspect ratio is wider showing you more on the sides and less on the top and bottom.  The trade-off is that you won’t get that 3D feel.

That said, I should point out that very little 360 content is actually in true 3D.  If only one camera is used to record the video, the software will simply shift the same video right and left to match the distance between your eyes.  If the video source wasn’t recorded with the offset (using two lenses), you will not get the depth of view expected true 3D.  To be sure, there is a good amount of straight 3D content as well.  It is just rare to find the combination of 360 and true 3D underwater content at this point.

360 View Without 3D
Without 3D, the viewer can see more of the action at one time. The red line shows the edge of the 3D viewing area.

After trying both 360 and 360 with 3D, I prefer the former.  In addition the field of view issue above, the lenses used by many of headsets magnify the screen so much that you can see the individual pixels even on my iPhone 6.  It isn’t to the point of distraction, but the overall image quality without the magnification is much nicer.

To get the most out of your experience, follow these tips.

  • You don’t have to phyiscally turn around if you don’t want to.  When viewing 360 content without a headset, you can drag your finger on the screen to change the viewing direction.
  • When watching 360 videos, you can always stand and turn around, but a nice swiveling office chair works very well too.  Turn and spin to your heart’s delight with less up and down head movements caused by turning your entire body.  The added benefit here is that if you throw up, you won’t have to clean your regulator.
  • Some apps allow you to change the quality of the video.  For example, when using WiFi, YouTube lets you bump it up to 2180s.
  • User your headphones.  Not all content is in stereo but some of the more professional productions are.

If you want to try 3D, you will need to pick up some additional equipment.  Google Cardboard popularized inexpensive VR headsets using, well, cardboard that folds into something resembling the old ViewMasters I grew up with in the 70’s.  As of this writing, they run around $15 at the Google Store.

Google Cardboard
Google Cardboard

I poked around elsewhere, however, and found quite a few options over at Amazon running as low as $7.99.  SHARKK has one that includes headbands for hands free viewing.  Even though you can’t actually touch anything in a video, having to hold something to your face as you turn around does detract a bit from the experience.  Sminiker touts a waterproof version, but if you are already underwater, I suggest taking the glasses off an just enjoy the live view.

Now comes the fun part…feeling like you just got dropped on to a coral reef somewhere.  If you get bored there, you can try a pelagic video diving with whale sharks.  There is a growing volume of terrific 360 and 3D content available if you know where to look.

YouTube (iOS and Android)

There are tons of 360 videos on YouTube.  In fact, there is a dedicated channel; but note three things.  First, you will need the YouTube app to see 360 videos properly.  You can view those same videos on the web site, but they look bizarre.  If you can read the Matrix code as it scrolls down the screen, you might have a chance to view these videos on the desktop.  All others should use the YouTube app.  Second, there doesn’t appear to be an easy way to search within the channel.  You can browse the channel, but serendipity isn’t as compatible with time constraints as one would like.  To find immersive SCUBA (or anything else) videos, use the regular search field and add 360 to it.  (e.g., “SCUBA 360”)  Third, some of the content was shot using single cameras while others with two.  As such, there is a mix of simulated and true 3D content.

Discovery VR (iOS and Android)

The Discovery Channel has a mobile app that contains some very high quality experiences.  When I first downloaded the app, I immediately loaded Stacking Pots from Deadliest Catch.  (I love that show!)  They have content from a number of their shows, but most appear to be fairly short in the 1-3 minute range. The following are SCUBA centric.

  • From Fishing to EcoTourism – Short, but some nice shots of being in the water with a whale shark.
  • Protecting Ocean Anchor Species – A bit longer with more whale sharks and manta rays.
  • Mantas Flying on the Edge – Mantas, mantas and more mantas.
  • Several Mythbusters episodes involving sharks.

Vrse – Virtual Reality (iOS and Android)

With just over twenty videos, Vrse appears to have a smaller library than Discovery Channel, but makes up for it with the length and quality of the content.  Vrse videos are typically longer than Discover Channel videos(up to 10-minutes) so the viewer gets more of an opportunity to really get immersed into the story.  Some of the videos you can stream, while others require downloading.  (Watch your data plan if not using WiFi.) At the moment, there is only one underwater video, but their other stories are quite good too.

  • The Click Effect is a short movie about the noises dolphins and whales make to communicate.
  • Waves of Grace involves an Ebola survivor who uses her immunity to care for orphaned children.
  • The Source tells the story of 13-year old girl who walked miles to get her family water until a well gets drilled in her village.

NYT VR – (iOS and Android)

The New York Times VR app is very similar to Vrse.  Some videos stream while some download and even some of the content overlaps with Vrse.  They do have some of their own content however.

  • NYT VR also has The Click Effect.  More dolphins and whales.
  • American Bison lets you see bison up close.
  • Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart puts you on the surface of the farthest plant/non-planet in the solar system.

USA Today VR – (iOS and Android)

USA Today is producing more 360 content for its stories.  When I downloaded the app, it came with 30 videos including several in a category titled “Tourism Australia.”

  • Swim With Sea Lions
  • Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
  • Fly Over the Great Ocean Road

That is all I could find this week.  If you have any other suggestions, feel free to add a comment below.  I would love to try them out!

David Howell

David Howell

I have been diving since 2002. While my technical and editing skills have not risen as fast as my passion for shooting video, I am enjoying the opportunities I get to learn and grow. Many thanks to Leslie for her love, partnership, suggestions, wit and equally compulsive technology interest. Must...get...more diving in...

Leave a Reply