How to Capture 360-degree Photos/Videos from Modelling Tool and Game Engine
Sometimes software-generated VR content creation sounds like a high-tech, futuristic field that most people consider its barrier to enter very high. However, this is not necessarily the case. 3D modelers and animators have great transferable skills in producing an immersive experience for the next generation of content consumers. In fact, with just some simple and intuitive modification in the animation production procedure, you’d be able to change the virtual camera into a 360-degree one and shoot panoramas or 360 videos of 3D scenes you built within your favorite modelling tool, providing your viewers with exponentially better sense of space, exploration, and free-will.
Although there’s only one fundamental principle behind such practice, specific operation and final output vary across different 3D animation tools or game engines. So I’d specify what you can do with some of the most popular platforms and how you do it.
First things first, Blender, as a completely free and open-source 3D animation software loved by probably the most artists and developers in the world (check out the previous article Why Blender Is The 3D Animation Software You Need For Your VR Projects ), supports a very intuitive and easy procedure to record a 360-degree video of your scene. You just need to select your camera, click the ‘data’ button on the options bar for the camera, change the lens to ‘panorama,’ and then change the type to ‘equirectangular.’ This is basically what you must do to capture 360-degree contents from your 3D project.
However, you do need to take care of some other factors to finetune viewers’ experience. For example, you need to always make sure that there are interesting things ‘wrapping up’ the camera all long your designed path. You should probably also avoid any rotation of the camera because that may be very confusing for the users in VR. This video covers details of how you should position the camera and what aperture, render resolution, etc. you should use to produce the best possible 360-degree content from Blender. These rules should also apply to whichever other tools you try to export a 360 video from.
The way you capture a 360-degree video inside Maya is kind of similar to how you do it in Blender: you select your camera, go to camera shape, scroll all the way down to the ‘Arnold’ tab, and change the ‘Camera Type’ to spherical. Then the crucial part is done. This video gives an excellent, detailed walk-through of how you can get a 360-degree spherical render from Maya.
Compared to Blender and Maya, SketchUp is a light-weight 3D modeling software that requires a smaller learning curve. It doesn’t come with its own rendering functionality, but there are many great rendering extensions for SketchUp, such as Vray, Su Podium, ShaderLight, or Twilight. Here is a Youtube Tutorial on how you can render a 360-degree video with SketchUp and Twilight.
Unity and UE4
And then, some space for the popular game engines. Game engines are not primarily designed for creators to export their works in a video format, but it’s always cool for a game developer to export a panorama or 360-degree video and upload it onto 360 content platforms like VeeR to give potential players a taste of what it feels like to be inside a game scene. Although you can’t directly move or rotate a virtual camera in Unity as you do in Blender (you have to parent it to some game object), there is a well-recommended offline rendering system by OliVR that allows you to export stereo 360 and 180 panoramas and up to 8K videos. As for Unreal Engine, they have an official plugin for users to capture 360 stereoscopic photos or videos. Here is a complete guide that got all the important settings covered and presented a nice handy way to set up and trigger a capture from Blueprint using a single console command.
three.js and A-frame
Finally, as WebVR gets increasingly popular among VR developers and viewers, I also found some good resources that describe how you get 360-degree contents from popular frameworks to build WebVR applications. Here is a blog on how you get a 360 capture from inside of a three.js scene. A-frame is an open-source project built on top of WebGL and three.js, and here is a blog on how you can create a 3D panoramic image with A-frame.
Storytelling in VR
In the end, a brief note on how developers should handle the nuances between storytelling through traditional 3D animation and through VR animation. It’s still a challenge with no definite solution in the industry, but I’d love to share a great article about expert opinions on challenges proposed by interactive VR animation.
To sum it up:
1. Because VR actually put the viewer ‘inside’ the scenes you produce, it matters much more to design reasonable scales and speed of movement of your objects and characters relative to the player’s size.
2. As for VR, for sure the storyline can’t be linear anymore but with different (and ideally more than just a few) branches, but it’s impossible to have a unique branch for every angle the user can look at/every posture the user can make. And thus, it’s important to give users subtle and non-disruptive clues on where they should look to proceed with the storyline.
3. So far more projects still utilize similar pipeline used in linear jobs — that is, the VR-contents-to-be are presented in an ‘unappealing wide angle’, AKA 360-degree scenes unwrapped on flat screens during the animation process. Because developers need to put on a headset to preview, it makes the collaboration work especially hard. And thus it would be crucial for developers to decide on if they should go after a few tools that animate directly in VR or if they can figure out some other effective solution for collaboration.
4. Also because VR animations are non-linear and interactive, it might put some challenges on how work by one animator can hook up to another one’s seamlessly.
Such nuances and challenges can go on and on. VR animation is a young field, and it’s a promising one that would, for sure, come to be a brand new human narrative by which we perceive, experience, and entertain. Next-generation VR contents that make the mass crazy would be built upon technological revolutions in hardware and software, but also upon your creativity and insights.
Have fun and good luck, VeeR creators!
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