When Facebook acquired virtual reality company Oculus VR last year, lots of people were left scratching their heads. Why would a social network need a virtual reality startup?

Now it's starting to make a whole lot more sense. Facebook has just introduced an exciting new feature called 360 Video, and it's perhaps the best demonstration yet of how virtual reality-style video content teamed with interactive, user-controlled features can make for all kinds of exciting entertainment opportunities.

While Facebook's 360 Videos look like regular online videos embedded on a web page, they're actually interactive experiences. Instead of passively watching the video play back, you can get involved with it, with full control (most of the time) over the camera angle.

Effectively, it's like Google Street View, except with full-motion video instead of static photography. And like Street View, it's filmed with multiple cameras, with the video then stitched together in software to create a kind of live 360-degree panorama (apart from the Star Wars video, of course, which is 3D courtesy of CGI).


Star Wars: The Force Awakens Immersive 360 Experience

Speed across the Jakku desert from Star Wars: The Force Awakens with this immersive 360 experience created exclusively for Facebook.

Posted by Star Wars on Wednesday, September 23, 2015


The effect is kind of halfway between watching a movie and playing a game, especially with the Star Wars entry, which is the closest you'll come to racing across a sandy desert in a land speeder all year (most probably). Because you can't look every way at once, the videos almost demand repeated viewings, because the second time around you might want to catch angles you missed on the first viewing.

Other launch videos include the taping of the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live, which gives you a virtual seat right in the audience as the show kicks off, and an awesome GoPro demo with dirt bike freeriders carving up the dunes in Idaho. Plus there's content from Discovery, LeBron James, and VICE.

At present, 360 Videos are viewable on desktop browsers and Android smartphones only, with the feature said to be coming to iOS soon. On desktop, you're also limited to playing the content in Chrome and Firefox, with no support yet for Safari or Internet Explorer.

This isn't the first time we've seen 360-degree videos. They've existed for a few years now, and YouTube adopted the feature earlier in the year. But we've definitely never seen them done with so much polish and style, and the way Facebook has partnered with huge brands like Star Wars and GoPro shows this is only the beginning for what could be an amazing new entertainment medium. Exciting stuff.