When Facebook's internal creative team, known as The Factory, set out to film a proof of concept for its new 360-degree video camera, they picked an ambitious subject: Grand Central Terminal. A New York City transit center is among the more challenging places to shoot, especially so if you're trying to tell an interference-free story. In fact, Facebook only had three 90-minute windows over the course of a few days to shoot back in March, right when Grand Central closes down at 2AM before reopening at 5:30AM.
The short film, called Here and Now, treats Grand Central as a character, home to thousands of discrete human interactions every day that, with the power of 360-degree video, you can experience up close and personal. The film is viewable on your smartphone or in a web browser, but it was designed with Samsung and Oculus' Gear VR headset in mind. The Factory kept a handful of those devices on hand at all times throughout the five-week shooting and editing process to ensure it crafted something that functions well in virtual reality. So in a few hours, Here and Now should also be viewable through the Oculus Video app.
Facebook's Grand Central Terminal video was made with Gear VR in mind
Of course, the film serves another purpose, too. It shows manufacturers and filmmakers what you can achieve with a high-end 360-degree camera like Facebook's Surround 360. The 17-camera array — a prototype device that was used to film the Grand Central video — was unveiled as a reference design at Facebook's F8 developers conference in April. The company has no plans to sell a finished product, but it says others can spend around $30,000 to buy the materials to make their own version of the Surround 360. The camera design and stitching software will be freely available online this summer. (A similar setup from GoPro costs $15,000, while Nokia's 360-degree Ozo camera costs $60,000.)
So it goes without saying these rigs are for pros. Facebook wants more devices out there capable of creating the kinds of experiences that prove live-action, and not just virtual, VR experiences are worth the effort. The company launched support for 360-degree video in the News Feed in September and its since looked for ways to encourage both filmmakers and viewers to embrace the burgeoning new format. After all, the more stunning the shot, the more shareable the video.
High-quality 360-degree video is in short supply
Those films are still in woefully short supply, so the Factory set out to create one of its own. The team had only about 30 minutes to set up each night. That involved orchestrating the placement of 20 principal actors, who would act out key storylines in front of and around the camera for viewers to eavesdrop on. There were also about 500 extras to give the train terminal the appearance of being alive and bustling.
"We’ve all seen the amazing work in the gaming realm," says Larry Corwin, a creative director at the Factory. The challenge, he added, was seeing whether 360-degree video, especially when viewed in a VR headset, could bring people closer to together rather than transport them to another world. The result is a believable slice of New York life, presented from the eyes of a casual bystander standing among the ebb and flow of a historic transportation hub in the country's largest city.
Update, May 17th at 2:45PM ET: Although they have been used interchangeably, Grand Central Station is more commonly used to refer to the post office across the street. The train station is known as Grand Central Terminal.