By Satender Saroha, Video Engineering
Virtual reality (VR) 360° videos are the next frontier of how we engage with and consume content. Unlike a traditional scenario in which a person views a screen in front of them, VR places the user inside an immersive experience. A viewer is “in” the story, and not on the sidelines as an observer.
Ivan Sutherland, widely regarded as the father of computer graphics, laid out the vision for virtual reality in his famous speech, “Ultimate Display” in 1965 . In that he said, “You shouldn’t think of a computer screen as a way to display information, but rather as a window into a virtual world that could eventually look real, sound real, move real, interact real, and feel real.”
Over the years, significant advancements have been made to bring reality closer to that vision. With the advent of headgear capable of rendering 3D spatial audio and video, realistic sound and visuals can be virtually reproduced, delivering immersive experiences to consumers.
When it comes to entertainment and sports, streaming in VR has become the new 4K HEVC/UHD of 2016. This has been accelerated by the release of new camera capture hardware like GoPro and streaming capabilities such as 360° video streaming from Facebook and YouTube. Yahoo streams lots of engaging sports, finance, news, and entertainment video content to tens of millions of users. The opportunity to produce and stream such content in 360° VR opens a unique opportunity to Yahoo to offer new types of engagement, and bring the users a sense of depth and visceral presence.
While this is not an experience that is live in product, it is an area we are actively exploring. In this blog post, we take a look at what’s involved in building an end-to-end VR streaming workflow for both Live and Video on Demand (VOD). Our experiments and research goes from camera rig setup, to video stitching, to encoding, to the eventual rendering of videos on video players on desktop and VR headsets. We also discuss challenges yet to be solved and the opportunities they present in streaming VR.
1. The Workflow
Yahoo’s video platform has a workflow that is used internally to enable streaming to an audience of tens of millions with the click of a few buttons. During experimentation, we enhanced this same proven platform and set of APIs to build a complete 360°/VR experience. The diagram below shows the end-to-end workflow for streaming 360°/VR that we built on Yahoo’s video platform.
1.1. Capturing 360° video
In order to capture a virtual reality video, you need access to a 360°-capable video camera. Such a camera uses either fish-eye lenses or has an array of wide-angle lenses to collectively cover a 360 (θ) by 180 (ϕ) sphere as shown below.
Though it sounds simple, there is a real challenge in capturing a scene in 3D 360° as most of the 360° video cameras offer only 2D 360° video capture.
In initial experiments, we tried capturing 3D video using two cameras side-by-side, for left and right eyes and arranging them in a spherical shape. However this required too many cameras – instead we use view interpolation in the stitching step to create virtual cameras.
Another important consideration with 360° video is the number of axes the camera is capturing video with. In traditional 360° video that is captured using only a single-axis (what we refer as horizontal video), a user can turn their head from left to right. But this setup of cameras does not support a user tilting their head at 90°.
To achieve true 3D in our setup, we went with 6-12 GoPro cameras having 120° field of view (FOV) arranged in a ring, and an additional camera each on top and bottom, with each one outputting 2.7K at 30 FPS.
1.2. Stitching 360° video
Because a 360° view is a spherical video, the surface of this sphere needs to be projected onto a planar surface in 2D so that video encoders can process it. There are two popular layouts:
Equirectangular layout: This is the most widely-used format in computer graphics to represent spherical surfaces in a rectangular form with an aspect ratio of 2:1. This format has redundant information at the poles which means some pixels are over-represented, introducing distortions at the poles compared to the equator (as can be seen in the equirectangular mapping of the sphere below).
CubeMap layout: CubeMap layout is a format that has also been used in computer graphics. It contains six individual 2D textures that map to six sides of a cube. The figure below is a typical cubemap representation. In a cubemap layout, the sphere is projected onto six faces and the images are folded out into a 2D image, so pieces of a video frame map to different parts of a cube, which leads to extremely efficient compact packing. Cubemap layouts require about 25% fewer pixels compared to equirectangular layouts.
In our setup, we experimented with a couple of stitching softwares. One was from Vahana VR , and the other was a modified version of the open-source Surround360 technology that works with a GoPro rig . Both softwares output equirectangular panoramas for the left and the right eye. Here are the steps involved in stitching together a 360° image:
Raw frame image processing: Converts uncompressed raw video data to RGB, which involves several steps starting from black-level adjustment, to applying Demosaic algorithms in order to figure out RGB color parts for each pixel based on the surrounding pixels. This also involves gamma correction, color correction, and anti vignetting (undoing the reduction in brightness on the image periphery). Finally, this stage applies sharpening and noise-reduction algorithms to enhance the image and suppress the noise.
Calibration: During the calibration step, stitching software takes steps to avoid vertical parallax while stitching overlapping portions in adjacent cameras in the rig. The purpose is to align everything in the scene, so that both eyes see every point at the same vertical coordinate. This step essentially matches the key points in images among adjacent camera pairs. It uses computer vision algorithms for feature detection like Binary Robust Invariant Scalable Keypoints (BRISK)  and AKAZE .
Optical Flow: During stitching, to cover the gaps between adjacent real cameras and provide interpolated view, optical flow is used to create virtual cameras. The optical flow algorithm finds the pattern of apparent motion of image objects between two consecutive frames caused by the movement of the object or camera. It uses OpenCV algorithms to find the optical flow .
Below are the frames produced by the GoPro camera rig:
To get the full depth in stereo, the rig is set-up so that i = r * sin(FOV/2 – 360/n). where:
- i = IPD/2 where IPD is the inter-pupillary distance between eyes.
- r = Radius of the rig.
- FOV = Field of view of GoPro cameras, 120 degrees.
- n = Number of cameras which is 12 in our setup.
Given IPD is normally 6.4 cms, i should be greater than 3.2 cm. This implies that with a 12-camera setup, the radius of the the rig comes to 14 cm(s). Usually, if there are more cameras it is easier to avoid black stripes.
Reducing Bandwidth – FOV-based adaptive transcoding
For a truly immersive experience, users expect 4K (3840 x 2160) quality resolution at 60 frames per second (FPS) or higher. Given typical HMDs have a FOV of 120 degrees, a full 360° video needs a resolution of at least 12K (11520 x 6480). 4K streaming needs a bandwidth of 25 Mbps . So for 12K resolution, this effectively translates to > 75 Mbps and even more for higher framerates. However, average wifi in US has bandwidth of 15 Mbps .
One way to address the bandwidth issue is by reducing the resolution of areas that are out of the field of view. Spatial sub-sampling is used during transcoding to produce multiple viewport-specific streams. Each viewport-specific stream has high resolution in a given viewport and low resolution in the rest of the sphere.
On the player side, we can modify traditional adaptive streaming logic to take into account field of view. Depending on the video, if the user moves his head around a lot, it could result in multiple buffer fetches and could result in rebuffering. Ideally, this will work best in videos where the excessive motion happens in one field of view at a time and does not span across multiple fields of view at the same time. This work is still in an experimental stage.
The default output format from stitching software of both Surround360 and Vahana VR is equirectangular format. In order to reduce the size further, we pass it through a cubemap filter transform integrated into ffmpeg to get an additional pixel reduction of ~25%  .
At the end of above steps, the stitching pipeline produces high-resolution stereo 3D panoramas which are then ingested into the existing Yahoo Video transcoding pipeline to produce multiple bit-rates HLS streams.
1.3. Adding a stitching step to the encoding pipeline
Live – In order to prepare for multi-bitrate streaming over the Internet, a live 360° video-stitched stream in RTMP is ingested into Yahoo’s video platform. A live Elemental encoder was used to re-encode and package the live input into multiple bit-rates for adaptive streaming on any device (iOS, Android, Browser, Windows, Mac, etc.)
Video on Demand – The existing Yahoo video transcoding pipeline was used to package multiple bit-rates HLS streams from raw equirectangular mp4 source videos.
1.4. Rendering 360° video into the player
The spherical video stream is delivered to the Yahoo player in multiple bit rates. As a user changes their viewing angle, different portion of the frame are shown, presenting a 360° immersive experience. There are two types of VR players currently supported at Yahoo:
- VR Display Capabilities: It has attributes to indicate position support, orientation support, and has external display.
- VR Layer: Contains the HTML5 canvas element which is presented by VR Display when its submit frame is called. It also contains attributes defining the left bound and right bound textures within source canvas for presenting to an eye.
- VREye Parameters: Has information required to correctly render a scene for given eye. For each eye, it has offset the distance from middle of the user’s eyes to the center point of one eye which is half of the interpupillary distance (IPD). In addition, it maintains the current FOV of the eye, and the recommended renderWidth and render Height of each eye viewport.
- Get VR Displays: Returns a list of VR Display(s) HMDs accessible to the browser.
For web devices which support only monoscopic rendering like desktop browsers without HMD, it creates a single Perspective Camera object specifying the FOV and aspect ratio. As the device’s requestAnimationFrame is called it renders the new frames. As part of rendering the frame, it first calculates the projection matrix for FOV and sets the X (user’s right), Y (Up), Z (behind the user) coordinates of the camera position.
For devices that support stereoscopic rendering like mobile phones from Samsung Gear, the webvr player creates two PerspectiveCamera objects, one for the left eye and one for the right eye. Each Perspective camera queries the VR device capabilities to get the eye parameters like FOV, renderWidth and render Height every time a frame needs to be rendered at the native refresh rate of HMD. The key difference between stereoscopic and monoscopic is the perceived sense of depth that the user experiences, as the video frames separated by an offset are rendered by separate canvas elements to each individual eye.
Cardboard VR – Google provides a VR sdk for both iOS and Android . This simplifies common VR tasks like-lens distortion correction, spatial audio, head tracking, and stereoscopic side-by-side rendering. For iOS, we integrated Cardboard VR functionality into our Yahoo Video SDK, so that users can watch stereoscopic 3D videos on iOS using Google Cardboard.
With all the pieces in place, and experimentation done, we were able to successfully do a 360° live streaming of an internal company-wide event.
In addition to demonstrating our live streaming capabilities, we are also experimenting with showing 360° VOD videos produced with a GoPro-based camera rig. Here is a screenshot of one of the 360° videos being played in the Yahoo player.
3. Challenges and Opportunities
3.1. Enormous amounts of data
As we alluded to in the video processing section of this post, delivering 4K resolution videos for each eye for each FOV at a high frame-rate remains a challenge. While FOV-adaptive streaming does reduce the size by providing high resolution streams separately for each FOV, providing an impeccable 60 FPS or more viewing experience still requires a lot more data than the current internet pipes can handle. Some of the other possible options which we are closely paying attention to are:
Compression efficiency with HEVC and VP9 – New codecs like HEVC and VP9 have the potential to provide significant compression gains. HEVC open source codecs like x265 have shown a 40% compression performance gain compared to the currently ubiquitous H.264/AVC codec. LIkewise, a VP9 codec from Google has shown similar 40% compression performance gains. The key challenge is the hardware decoding support and the browser support. But with Apple and Microsoft very much behind HEVC and Firefox and Chrome already supporting VP9, we believe most browsers would support HEVC or VP9 within a year.
Using 10 bit color depth vs 8 bit color depth – Traditional monitors support 8 bpc (bits per channel) for displaying images. Given each pixel has 3 channels (RGB), 8 bpc maps to 256x256x256 color/luminosity combinations to represent 16 million colors. With 10 bit color depth, you have the potential to represent even more colors. But the biggest stated advantage of using 10 bit color depth is with respect to compression during encoding even if the source only uses 8 bits per channel. Both x264 and x265 codecs support 10 bit color depth, with ffmpeg already supporting encoding at 10 bit color depth.
3.2. Six degrees of freedom
With current camera rig workflows, users viewing the streams through HMD are able to achieve three degrees of Freedom (DoF) i.e., the ability to move up/down, clockwise/anti-clockwise, and swivel. But you still can’t get a different perspective when you move inside it i.e., move forward/backward. Until now, this true six DoF immersive VR experience has only been possible in CG VR games. In video streaming, LightField technology-based video cameras produced by Lytro are the first ones to capture light field volume data from all directions . But Lightfield-based videos require an order of magnitude more data than traditional fixed FOV, fixed IPD, fixed lense camera rigs like GoPro. As bandwidth problems get resolved via better compressions and better networks, achieving true immersion should be possible.
VR streaming is an emerging medium and with the addition of 360° VR playback capability, Yahoo’s video platform provides us a great starting point to explore the opportunities in video with regard to virtual reality. As we continue to work to delight our users by showing immersive video content, we remain focused on optimizing the rendering of high-quality 4K content in our players. We’re looking at building FOV-based adaptive streaming capabilities and better compression during delivery. These capabilities, and the enhancement of our webvr player to play on more HMDs like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, will set us on track to offer streaming capabilities across the entire spectrum. At the same time, we are keeping a close watch on advancements in supporting spatial audio experiences, as well as advancements in the ability to stream volumetric lightfield videos to achieve true six degrees of freedom, with the aim of realizing the true potential of VR.
Glossary – VR concepts:
VR – Virtual reality, commonly referred to as VR, is an immersive computer-simulated reality experience that places viewers inside an experience. It “transports” viewers from their physical reality into a closed virtual reality. VR usually requires a headset device that takes care of sights and sounds, while the most-involved experiences can include external motion tracking, and sensory inputs like touch and smell. For example, when you put on VR headgear you suddenly start feeling immersed in the sounds and sights of another universe, like the deck of the Star Trek Enterprise. Though you remain physically at your place, VR technology is designed to manipulate your senses in a manner that makes you truly feel as if you are on that ship, moving through the virtual environment and interacting with the crew.
360 degree video – A 360° video is created with a camera system that simultaneously records all 360 degrees of a scene. It is a flat equirectangular video projection that is morphed into a sphere for playback on a VR headset. A standard world map is an example of equirectangular projection, which maps the surface of the world (sphere) onto orthogonal coordinates.
Spatial Audio – Spatial audio gives the creator the ability to place sound around the user. Unlike traditional mono/stereo/surround audio, it responds to head rotation in sync with video. While listening to spatial audio content, the user receives a real-time binaural rendering of an audio stream .
FOV – A human can naturally see 170 degrees of viewable area (field of view). Most consumer grade head mounted displays HMD(s) like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive now display 90 degrees to 120 degrees.
Monoscopic video – A monoscopic video means that both eyes see a single flat image, or video file. A common camera setup involves six cameras filming six different fields of view. Stitching software is used to form a single equirectangular video. Max output resolution on 2D scopic videos on Gear VR is 3480×1920 at 30 frames per second.
Presence – Presence is a kind of immersion where the low-level systems of the brain are tricked to such an extent that they react just as they would to non-virtual stimuli.
Latency – It’s the time between when you move your head, and when you see physical updates on the screen. An acceptable latency is anywhere from 11 ms (for games) to 20 ms (for watching 360 vr videos).
Head Tracking – There are two forms:
- Positional tracking – movements and related translations of your body, eg: sway side to side.
- Traditional head tracking – left, right, up, down, roll like clock rotation.
 Ultimate Display Speech as reminisced by Fred Brooks: http://www.roadtovr.com/fred-brooks-ivan-sutherlands-1965-ultimate-display-speech/
 Equirectangular Layout Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/54144402@N03/10111691364/
 CubeMap Layout: http://learnopengl.com/img/advanced/cubemaps_skybox.png
 Vahana VR: http://www.video-stitch.com/
 Surround360 Stitching software: https://github.com/facebook/Surround360
 Computer Vision Algorithm BRISK: https://www.robots.ox.ac.uk/~vgg/rg/papers/brisk.pdf
 Computer Vision Algorithm AKAZE: http://docs.opencv.org/3.0-beta/doc/tutorials/features2d/akaze_matching/akaze_matching.html
 Optical Flow: http://docs.opencv.org/trunk/d7/d8b/tutorial_py_lucas_kanade.html
 4K connection speeds: https://help.netflix.com/en/node/306
 Average connection speeds in US: https://www.akamai.com/us/en/about/news/press/2016-press/akamai-releases-fourth-quarter-2015-state-of-the-internet-report.jsp
 CubeMap transform filter for ffmpeg: https://github.com/facebook/transform
 FFMPEG software: https://ffmpeg.org/
 WebVR Spec: https://w3c.github.io/webvr/
 Google Daydream SDK: https://vr.google.com/cardboard/developers/
 Lytro LightField Volume for six DoF: https://www.lytro.com/press/releases/lytro-immerge-the-worlds-first-professional-light-field-solution-for-cinematic-vr
 10 bit color depth: https://gist.github.com/l4n9th4n9/4459997