Test Drive: 360-degree videos from the Google Cultural Institute

Google announced new additions to its push to record great works in 360-degree video, this time focused on the fine arts. The tech giant has partnered with more than 60 performing arts groups around the world to create live, 360-degree experiences. I’ve seen a few experiments with this video tech before, and it has always seemed more interesting in theory than in practice to me. So I was curious to see what this meeting of high-tech and high culture could produce.

In terms of available content, it’s quite an achievement. From the prestigious Berliner Philharmoniker to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater of Korea to the Bolshoi Theatre, from Natural Streets for Performing Arts to the American Museum of Magic, Google has gone big and gone global. Kudos for that!

The actual experience of the videos is also varied. For instance, a clip of the Opéra national de Paris puts the viewer in the middle of the ballet company. The camera switches randomly between several vantage points, which I actually found jarring, since it’s so different from how you’d usually experience a dance performance. The extra interactivity gave me too much to potentially look at, and I found myself sure that I was missing big chunks of the work. Granted, the beauty of this technology is that you could rewatch a piece as many times as you wanted and explore the entirety of the performance space, but that’s placing a major demand on the viewer.

I actually found the tool much less obtrusive with the classical music works, where the visual always plays second fiddle to the audio. I watched the Philadelphia Orchestra in a video that put the viewer in control of three different cameras, which greatly improved the experience rather than random switching. Watching the flutes and oboe up close was my favorite part (personal bias, I’m a wind player too), but you could also watch the brass and basses or the percussion, along with the back of the other string sections.

This is some seriously cool technology. No, it doesn’t capture the magic of being in a concert hall and feeling the music vibrate in your body. No, it doesn’t work perfectly all the time; you need a powerful Internet connection to avoid stutters. However, it does present a free way for people to explore what these art forms, so often stereotyped as stuffy or old or boring. The high-tech Google treatment could encourage more people to have their first experience with opera, theater, ballet, or classical music, just by nature of being online and trying something new. The 360-degree video technology may be a flash-in-the-pan, but the effort to try new things by these cultural institutions is definitely worth supporting.

Anna Washenko