The rise of 360-degree panoramic imagery

Dong Liu / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s no surprise anymore the pace at which technology moves. Fads come and go as people try to capitalise on the viral nature of the digital world. But with so much noise, you must produce something meaningful for it to stick. And when something does stick, it can completely change the way we consume content forever.

One of my favourite recent content developments was the advent of live streaming. Twitch did an amazing job bringing the format to fruition. It has given gamers a platform to share their new game experiences with people all around the world and it helped propel eSports into a multi-million dollar industry. If you’re not convinced, the flagship Dota 2 tournament this year had a prize purse of over $25,000,000 USD.

When Facebook took the idea to their platform, there was a marked shift in the way we consume content. Suddenly, it was all about immediacy and accessibility – rather than just reading the news, people wanted to say “I was there”, even if it’s only in a digital sense. Instagram stories jumped on the bandwagon too and it’s becoming hugely popular as people share their day’s experiences almost as soon as it happened.

So what next? Well, we can be pretty sure that it will be immediate. And what’s more immediate than 360-degree panoramic imagery? The desire to feel like you’re actually at Machu Pichu without having to trek through spider-infested forests is popular right now as people become more and more time-poor. But this desire isn’t new at all. In fact, the first 360-degree image can be dated back to Robert Barker when he coined the term “panorama” in 1787.

Etymology of Panorama

The English painter showed off his masterpiece in a purpose-built panorama building in Leicester Square. Within, visitors would have found themselves fenced in by a massive painting on a cylindrical surface allowing them to feel like they were actually at the scene that was depicted. And thus, the panorama had been born.

I can hear you retort “but he’s a painter”. The process of creating a panorama is certainly different for photographers, especially 19th century ones. In the early days, to make a panorama you simply had to press a few silver-plates together before sensitising and developing them, often in the field while the plates are still wet. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that we started seeing purpose-built panoramic cameras using flexible film as opposed to solid plates.


MTW4GF . English: Robert Barker (1739-1806) - English painter. Robert Barker 523 Rober Barker Panorama
The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo


There are a couple of reasons why it’s taken over two hundred years for 360-degree photography to become accessible and popular. Firstly, for centuries, unless you had a purpose-built panoramic building like Robert Barker did, panoramic images weren’t that immersive.

Secondly, photography only started to become accessible to the wider public at the turn of the 20th century. This meant it was reserved for wealthy fanatics who could afford the expensive equipment. It wasn’t until the 1950s when smaller cameras were being introduced and 35mm film was becoming the standard for amateurs. Before then, cameras were big, heavy and difficult operate so only a handful of people had the time and money to learn to use them. This means the talent pool was small and things tend not to get popular unless it’s available to the wider public.


FG035M JOHN A. DICK (1879-1972). /nAmerican photographer, with a Cirkut panoramic camera, early 20th century.
Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo


So what’s making 360-degree imagery popular today? To begin with, as the technology to create them is advancing and becoming more accessible, the talent pool grows and thus the quantity and quality of output grows too. Nowadays, you can view most major cities in this fun and interactive format.

But also, we must come back to advent of live streaming and why that’s become so popular. There are three key factors that makes content successful right now: immediacy, accessibility and significance. The first two are generally contemplated by content creators now but the significance of media still needs more attention. What I mean by this is that successful content nowadays should be meaningful and touch the hearts of consumers. In the case of 360 imagery, the significance comes from the valuable insight you can gain as a traveller by scoping out an area with unrivalled immersion.

We spoke to 360Cities Commercial Director Steve Hercher to find out more about the rise of 360-degree imagery. Of its ascension, Steve said:

“360-degree photos on the web began to appear as early as the 90s but resolution and responsiveness were so limited that it qualified strictly as an odd curiosity. It was only the convergence of a few factors that led to a big boom in the amount and quality of 360-degree image content being produced: the ubiquity of broadband; powerful software for stitching and correcting images shot with wide angle or fisheye lenses; and in particular the development of browser panorama plugins that delivered a smooth, immersive viewing experience. By the mid-2000s it was a new day for beautiful, immersive imagery created with web viewing in mind.”

We expect these interactive visuals to feature prominently in real estate and travel where there is a real importance for customers to get a feel for a place accurately. But there has been great success in other applications too. Mobile marketing experts Weve recently did a campaign with Fiat and BMW delivering an interactive 360-degree view of car interiors in a bid to garner engagement. For the BMW 2 Series GT, their campaign resulted in an average dwell time of 1 minute 39 seconds. That’s eleven times higher than the Celtra benchmark!


Credit: Dong Liu / Alamy Stock Photo


But what implications will this have on the future of content? Are people going to be expecting more and more interactive content? Steve has his thoughts and explains: “When we started 360Cities in 2007, we began with a small group, really a handful of contributors, mostly based in Europe. These were mostly people who were innovators and tinkerers and had a passion for the art as well as the tech. We had no idea how many people around the world were or would be interested in producing high-quality immersive imagery, as distinct from mobile point and click panoramic images.

“The growth of our community includes thousands and thousands of people around the world exceeded our expectations, and it continues. The application of 360° photography in many areas has spread widely, has proven to be effective, and is becoming more common. The rise of VR only supports that and should be seen as an additional platform on which this type of content can be consumed. The online world is more spherical every day.”

To the disappointment of flat-earthers out there, the digital world is indeed becoming more spherical. Does this mean that flat images are becoming obsolete? Unlikely. But it is an indication that audiences have an itch for more engaging content. And that’s what it’s all about really.

When Robert Barker showcased his massive painting, it delighted and inspired as it transported viewers to a vantage point that was previously unreachable. It made imagination obsolete and transcended what was possible in visual arts. As a mark of Barker’s innovation, it’s taken over 200 years to transform Barker’s vision into a digital format. But it’s here now and the rise of 360-degree panoramic imagery is about to change the way we see the world and experience imagery.

Fancy taking a spin? Check out our 360-degree images here.

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