Facebook users watch more than 4bn videos a day on the social network. Soon, they’ll be able to watch some of them in 360 degrees.
The company has begun supporting videos that allow viewers to pan round the scene in a full circle, six months after YouTube added a similar feature to its service.
“To create 360 videos, a special set of cameras is used to record all 360 degrees of a scene simultaneously. This means that when the video is playing on Facebook, you can choose what angle you want to see it from,” explained engineering director Maher Saba.
On Facebook’s website, viewers will use their mouse to control the video view, while on mobile devices they will either swipe their finger on the touchscreen or physically turn around.
Facebook enlisted some prominent partners for its launch, including Star Wars, Discovery, GoPro, Vice, Saturday Night Live and basketball star LeBron James.
The exact launch date for the videos remains vague, with Facebook only confirming that its web and Android users will be able to watch them “soon”, with iOS support following “in the coming months”.
Even so, the fact that both YouTube and Facebook are now supporting 360-degree videos is a shot in the arm for the nascent industry of virtual reality (VR) filmmakers, as they look for an audience beyond the tiny number of people who own VR headsets.
“Virtual reality now is mobile-first. We’re uploading these in 360 to YouTube, and I’m sure Facebook is going to have an in-app player as well,” VR producer Bryn Mooser told the Guardian in August, as his company released its 360-degree Welcome to Aleppo film, shot in Syria.
“When Facebook is able to show 360-video, anybody with a mobile phone will be able to watch it by moving the phone around them… Headsets aren’t going to be the way it goes: it’s just your phone.”
Facebook has a strong interest in headsets too: in 2014 it paid $2bn for headset developer Oculus VR, whose first commercial Oculus Rift headset will launch in early 2016.