Immersive Media provides live 360-degree view on the Web

The technology for producing full 360-degree views stitched together from a series of still pictures or video frames has been around for at least 20 years but never caught on in a commercial way. The ability to virtually move around a room with a mouse was often captivating, but quickly became tiresome.

Now a company called Immersive Media, based in Dallas, is looking to change that perception with a number of related solutions that includes IM LIVE, an easily deployed, turnkey system that streams these “immersive” images over the Internet to allow people to scroll around — with a slight delay — and get interactive with live panoramic views on their computer. This new technology works, and it’s cool.

MuchMusic, a Canadian Web site that shows music videos, live performances and celebrity interviews, has been using Immersive Media’s newly launched IM LIVE system to stream video daily from its MuchOnDemand studio to fans online. They produce and distribute a daily (Monday-Friday) broadcast at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT. For broadcasters and all types of program providers, the technology can be used for stand-alone events as well as to complement on-air programming.

Ryan Trotman, director, MuchMTV Digital, said the technology helps MuchMusic give fans “exclusive access” to live events and programming that makes them feel like they are actually in the studio. The 360-degree interactive experience allows fans to take control of MuchMusic shows like “MuchOnDemand” and “Live in the Lot” and gives them a “personal experience” with music artists.

While different business models are still being worked out, the IM LIVE system is available for sale (approximately $30,000) or rental. The system consists of the company’s Dodeca 2360 Camera and a streaming encoding server. The camera design is based on a dodecahedron, a 12-sided sphere that includes 11 lenses. It uses geodesic geometry to capture and combine 11 videos images simultaneously at 30 frames per second (100 million pixels). Environments can be recorded and transmitted at a resolution of 2400 x 1200 pixels per frame.

IM LIVE is easy to deploy and integrate into any broadcast video production environment. The processed standard- or high-definition video is displayed using a Flash-based player and streamed over the Akamai network via a high-speed Internet connection. While not completely live (video latency is about two to three seconds), the application allows users to pause the action and scroll around the screen to see what just happened around, say, a player in a sporting event.

The company envisions a wide variety of applications for broadcasters, advertisers and interactive marketers to deliver live, interactive, 360-degree video. This includes sports and entertainment, where products could be inserted into the live video and users have the ability to click on a video image and instantly get more information about a produce or service. There’s even talk about incorporating 3-D images into HD video.

“This entire ‘augmented reality’ we’ve created has a number of applications where it can be leveraged for the benefit of sponsors, so broadcasters should recognize the value of what it can bring to their Web-based platforms,” McGovern said.

The underlying video algorithms inside the camera that perform the melding of the video frames is the brainchild of David McCutchen, chief technology officer and company principal, who in the mid-1980s recognized the benefit to Hollywood for special effects and the ability to capture a wider field of view. The core technology, which received its first patent in 1991, was then productized and used in various military and government agency applications.

The goal for the past few years has been to miniaturize the system to get it into a form factor that could be used in unique production situations. It’s now the size of a grapefruit on top of a soda can, weighs about 2.5lbs, and has been strapped to a person’s head as they jump out of an airplane and for POV shots within music videos. They’ve also embedded GPS information into every frame of video captured to create panoramic mapping applications, using still images. Immersive Media licensed its patented technology to Google for the first launch of Google Earth’s “Street View.”

“We have continued on to develop an application that combines stills and video, using geodesic algorithms found in each frame, which lets you drop in onto a particular street and look in a specific windows of a building, for example, and is much more precise than it used to be,” said McGovern. “This goes a long way towards monetizing the content and enabling sponsors to get involved in this unique interactive experience that consumers will find very compelling.”

As for the 360-degree technology, it gas already been used by companies like Armani Jeans and Red Bull for special promotions. The National Geographic Channel has also employed it for special content. McGovern said that because IM LIVE allows viewers to control the viewing experience and feel what it’s like to be at a live event, the system promotes longer viewing times and a richer, more enjoyable viewing experience.

“Everybody’s been struggling with the Web and interactivity, but we’ve found a way to make sites attractive so that consumers stay longer and product messaging has a higher retention rate,” McGovern said. “We’ve seen users watch our 360-degree video an average of 4.7 times. That’s very high for an Internet video. We even had a person watch a one-minute Red Bull video 45 times.”