Pre-Facebook 360-Degree Video: Disney’s CircleVision, Or How I Fell In Love With China

It’s happened on numerous occasions lately, I wake up, and the first thing I do in my groggy, half-aware state is reach for my phone. Facebook is usually one of my first stops, and starting in 2015 (http://www.popsci.com/facebook-and-oculus-are-bringing-360deg-video-to-your), a new feature made confused, early-morning me even more confused. I was looking at a video of some event, live-streamed. Much to my shock, as I moved my phone in my hands, the video appeared to move. I realized that I could hold the phone in any direction, at any angle, and see what was going on at the event – I had full, 360 degree views of this stream. When I realized what I was seeing, I wondered – how is this possible on an iPhone? On Facebook? And it’s streamed live? It reminded me of my first exposure to 360 video, one of a different kind. This being the CircleVision technology at the World Showcase Pavilion at EPCOT, in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

World Showcase is a series of experiences where park-goers get to experience different countries’ landmarks, food, customs and cultures in various pavilions. Some countries represented include Canada, Japan, Mexico, Norway, and China. Canada and China’s pavilions both boast CircleVision experiences, a large format movie presentation technology used for the attractions O, Canada! and Reflections of China, which both run all day in their respective pavilions at World Showcase.

circle360

Both take place in large, rounded rooms, with nine screens mounted high on the wall in a circle. In between each screen is a projector aimed at a screen across the room, and because there are screens all the way around the room, the CircleVision films are viewed while standing up. There are railings along the theaters for viewers to lean against, and in some cases, hold on to (it’s easy to get dizzy when spinning around to try and catch what’s happening on the screens all around you). CircleVision is Disney’s version of circular viewing, first appearing at the 1900 Paris Exposition, that technology being Cinéorama. After this, there was Krugovaya Kinopanorama in Russia, using 11 cameras (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle-Vision_360°#Earlier_systems).

The difference between the CircleVision experience and the 360 videos of today in VR and on Facebook is how the viewer interacts with the viewing environment. With CircleVision, the video content is in a fixed position, projected all around the wall. With VR and Facebook, the viewer controls the placement of the screen and the viewing angle of the content. The CircleVision viewer still has control of what he or she sees, but that decision consists of which fixed screen to look at, and the viewer can’t move the screens, or what’s on them. In both cases, the viewer has agency and thus, viewing these two varieties of 360 degree video is more of a participatory act than a spectatorial experience.

I vividly remember my first CircleVision experience – it floored me, and was my first non-traditional film-viewing format. I first saw it with Reflections of China at a young age, and before then already had a massive interest in China. After that first time, I was riveted, and thus began a true love of, and fascination with China. Being surrounded by the Great Wall, the Yangtze, and taking in the massive height of the Three Gorges Dam in the CircleVision format, all images larger than life and fully immersive in their presentation further ignited a passion to travel to China, a dream I’ve held close to my heart ever since, and a dream that came true in May of 2016, when a class brought me to four cities in China over the course of two weeks. I was able to stand on the Great Wall and take in the views I’d previously seen in CircleVision, when I hoped I’d one day get to see the real thing. The visceral impact that CircleVision had on me is proof of the magnitude of experience that 360 degree video, paired with large format projection, can provide. While 360 video on a smartphone is cool, there is certainly merit to presentation in the theatrical environment, and while proliferation of such technologies for the home is on the horizon, we cannot forget about what theater viewing environments offer, something that home viewing never can.

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One thought on “Pre-Facebook 360-Degree Video: Disney’s CircleVision, Or How I Fell In Love With China

  1. Very cool – I had not seen this particular large-format panorama before. You’re right to call attention to the space differences between this and 360 video, both in that I have to stand and move my body to see the different screens, and also in that I’m in a room full of other people. It seems like one of the most unexpected aspects of VR, as we’ve discussed in class, is that it can be so isolating. Being visually transported to another space, as with Facebook 360 videos, offers a small, singular view. I imagine experiencing Reflections of China as you did, with a large group, feels significantly different. I’d be curious to see how much that potential for isolation is on the minds of VR developers.

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