This week, YouTube rolled out a long-awaited ability to upload and view 360-degree videos.
A 360-degree video is exactly what it sounds like—a video filmed in complete, 360-degree panorama, using a special camera that combines multiple lenses to create an all-the-way-around effect. By clicking and dragging inside the video, you can swing your view around to any angle you'd like. (It's even easier in the YouTube app for Android—there, you can just physically move your phone, and the video will follow.)
Here's my favorite 360-degree YouTube video so far. It's filmed from a camera attached to a hot-air balloon in midair:
As VR systems like Oculus Rift become popularized in the coming years, you're going to be seeing more and more 360-degree videos being made. YouTube's platform isn't quite as sophisticated as VR. (For one, it doesn't have the kind of head-tracking abilities you'd need to make 360-degree videos compatible with a VR headset.) But it's a first step in the direction of bringing true panoramic video into the mainstream. YouTube says its platform is compatible with five different 360-degree cameras, or you can 3D-print your own custom GoPro mount like this one.
Uploading a 360-degree video to YouTube is harder than uploading a normal video—a special Python script is required, at the moment—so you may want to stick with viewing them for now. If you have the Chrome browser open (360-videos work only on Chrome, at the moment), you can watch and click around a bunch of them in the playlist below. Or you could just wait until your VR headset arrives.