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Straight Talk Media & Entertainment

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It’d be easy to overlook YouTube’s decision to improve the experience of watching videos shot in portrait on smartphones as a minor feature upgrade. But the move by the Google-owned giant highlights how important the “vertical” format will be to the future of mobile media.

The latest version of YouTube’s latest Android smartphone app allows users to watch vertical videos in the way they were shot – upright and in full-screen. Previously, its platform would only allow videos to be viewed in widescreen, adding black bars to the sides of those filmed in portrait.

An unexpected twist in aspect-ratio evolution

Vertical can be seen as the latest in a long line of video formats introduced to set different media products apart.

Widescreen was first popularized by the movie industry in the 1950s to counter the threat of TV. More recently, the TV industry has introduced 4k displays to offer more immersive experiences than conventional services and devices.

From user-generated to user-defined video

Vertical is different. Whereas the move to widescreen and 4k has been driven by vested industry interests, vertical has grown from the grass roots – by people shooting video the way they want.

In this regard, it’s like the MP3. The music industry had developed better-quality formats that employed digital rights management (DRM) to guard against piracy, but the MP3 won out because it suited how consumers wanted to enjoy music.

Vertical’s about more than just Snapchat

Snapchat has played a greater part in promoting vertical video role than most. Its app encourages the capture and viewing of video in portrait over landscape, and its CEO has called on media and ad firms to “think vertical.”

But, just like the MP3 and DRM-free music, Snapchat did not create the consumer need; it just provided a technology that satisfies it. The rise of vertical is about a more fundamental shift in the video market that goes beyond social messaging.

Portrait: Even better for “selfie media”

That’s not to say people are going to start hanging their TV sets vertically or movie theatres should introduce portrait-oriented screens. But vertical will be about more than just video shot by kids too lazy to flip their phones sideways.

The clue is in the synonym: portrait. Whereas widescreen’s great for landscapes, vertical is better for people, making it well-suited to one of the fastest-growing forms of media: video blogs, or vlogs.

Vertical enables vloggers to fill the screen, enhancing that sense of personal connection with the viewer that has made this medium’s new stars more popular with kids than the distant, stage-managed personalities of old media.

The future of vertical? Whatever works best

To understand where vertical video will spread, just think what kind of content would be better shot or viewed in portrait.

News is a key candidate. Holding a smartphone upright offers quicker and sturdier way to film an event as it breaks and unfolds, a fact recognized by the vertical-first approaches of personal live-streaming services, Periscope and Meerkat. Other forms of content – say, stand-up comedy – may simply look better.

Rethink, don’t just recut, for vertical video

A time-worn way to adapt video for new media has been to recut, cropping or padding widescreen movies with black bars, for example, so they could be viewed on square-screened TVs. This led to some unfortunate outcomes, such as key characters or events being cut out of scenes.

Such compromises will be magnified with vertical, not least because of the major difference in aspect ratio. Recutting will help media firms to get their wares in front of users of the likes of Snapchat and Periscope, but the more personal, immediate and – above all – mobile nature suggests that vertical video warrants a vertical-first approach to really work.

Straight Talk is a weekly briefing from the desk of the Chief Research Officer. To receive this newsletter by email, please contact us.

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