If Pokémon Go was the engine that shoved augmented reality into the broader cultural conversation, can we say the Olympics and its billions of viewers did the same for AR's technological cousin, 360 video?
Broadcasters, brands and everything in between incorporated 360 video into their broader coverage of Rio's Olympic Games, which, as usual, attracted worldwide attention. While the results for 360 may not be known for a while, the technology got one of its biggest stages ever, with promising potential for advertisers in particular, looking to connect with audiences in meaningful ways.
The BBC, one of the world's largest broadcasters, covered the Games with both high-resolution 4K video and 360 video, which creates a wrap-around image that's a step below full virtual-reality immersion. 360's immersive and unique aspects are tantalizing, as are its relatively low demands on user technology (you can watch it on a regular smartphone or PC) and distribution pipes compared to full VR.
BBC executives acknowledged that they are still experimenting with 360.
But it proved to be a substantial experiment. BBC Sport provided 100 hours of 360 video, including a daily event and highlights package. The material was available on multiple platforms, including mobile apps and through the BBC's Taster site, where the Beeb debuts its broadcast experiments. Sports coverage included beach volleyball, boxing, basketball and fencing, and fans were given a choice of four different viewing points in each venue.
Even as an experiment, the BBC clearly understood that providing hard-core fans with immersive new ways to further connect with their favorite sports and athletes can be a gold-medal winner in its own right.
NBC also got into the 360 game, in a modest way, as part of an unprecedented 3,000 hours of streamed online coverage. NBC hasn't yet spoken about 360 but has pronounced itself happy with the overall streaming numbers, which passed the combined total streaming minutes watched of the most recent games in London and Sochi.
Similarly, Getty Images, the official photo agency for the International Olympic Committee, installed several kinds of sophisticated camera setups at various venues, including remotely controlled robot rigs that can point a camera anywhere in a 360-degree sweep. It also deployed cameras, in this case from Ricoh, that capture true 360 video.
And it's not just broadcasters that saw a big opportunity. Brands jumped in, counting on the huge audiences, especially on mobile, as they searched for ways to stand out from the other 60 official sponsors (and everyone else trying to jump on the Olympics train without paying).
Lincoln, for instance, sponsored an Olympics preview of Rio de Janeiro with the Washington Post that features multiple 360 videos. The 360 videos show street performers along Guanabara Bay, Copacabana Beach, a newly built tram crossing the city, Praça Mauá square, a motorcycle ride through a favela and more.
Samsung, a big investor in virtual reality, put out its own Olympics-related content even as it launched the VR-optimized Galaxy Note 7 and an improved headset. The company created an episodic series in VR following the U.S. men's basketball team at Rio, and is distributing it through the company's own Samsung VR app and online site. Same with another big handset maker, Alcatel, which bundled its just-released Idol 4S phone with optimized VR goggles, and packaged it with 360 sports and other content and apps.
Other brands cut out the media middleman and went directly to fans. One great example is this 90-second Visa spot, created in Portuguese, set mostly in the Olympic diving facilities and produced by Oriental Films. It puts viewers seemingly 20 feet in front of the diver poised to leap off the 10-meter platform, allows you to look around at the crowd below and then takes you underwater as the dive is completed.
For brands trying to cut through the Olympics clutter, 360 video is a difference maker. All the evidence shows that custom 360 brand experiences can be remarkably immersive and engaging. Done right, advertisers can build audiences around content they control, while powerfully connecting those audiences to their brands.
Some technical glitches and headaches are to be expected with new technologies like this. And more generally, 360 video is so absorbing that to really explore it all, you need to take your time, which means the best possible 360 video experience might not be a live one.
That's good news for brands creating perfect 360 experiences, but less so for news organizations and broadcasters trying to capture a live audience.
Regardless, it's clear that 360 can bring brands to the medal stand in ways they really haven't seen before. These Games definitely will be known for all the streaming video that fans used. Whether the Olympics can do for 360 what Pokémon Go has already done for AR remains to be seen.