If you ever find yourself at the Google Headquarters, ask Clay Bavor to introduce you to virtual reality. Google’s VP of VR, Clay will help you strap on a headset, and the next thing you know, you’re standing next to a giant swimming pool.
It’s clear you’re not seeing the real world; instead, it feels like you’ve been dropped into a video game. Clay will encourage you to get familiar with the new environment — while reminding you that you’re still at Google HQ in Mountain View, California.
Then, he’ll tell you to look up at a ladder that reaches into the sky, with a diving board at the top. After Clay tells the system to transport you to the top of the diving board, he’ll ask you to look over the edge to the pool far below. And then, he’ll tell you to step off the diving board. Would you do it?
Most people can’t force themselves to step off the edge, Clay says. As soon as he transports them to the top of the diving board, they crouch down to lower their center of gravity. They reach out for railings (that don’t exist) for support. Even when he reminds the user that they’re not actually on the diving board, they invariably struggle to step off the edge.
In the world of VR, this feeling of being somewhere else is called “presence.” It happens when what you see matches up with the way you’re moving your body. Your inner ear senses you changing your orientation — and if your orientation matches what you see, your brain says: I must be on top of a diving board.
Bringing VR to the masses
The concept of VR isn’t new. The first motion tracking head-mounted display, called Headsight, was developed in 1961. But only in the last decade have VR experiences became realistic enough to be immersive. And now, they’re becoming extremely high in demand: one of the most notable names in VR, Oculus, was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion.
As the technology improves, the next step is all about bringing this experience to the masses, and Clay’s team was up for the challenge. They knew that the core of any virtual reality experience consists of three things:
- A high resolution display
- An orientation sensor
- A viewport to hold the display at a distance.
The team realized that most people already had two of those three things sitting in their pockets or on their desks. Smartphones have both a high resolution display and an orientation sensor, so by adding a viewport, they could turn any smartphone into a VR headset.
Google Cardboard was launched as a low-cost way to access VR experiences, with the end goal of encouraging developers to create VR applications. Google has shipped more than 10 million of these viewers since the product’s launch in 2014.
Google’s first VR application was essentially a field trip in a box. With a handful of Google Cardboard headsets, a teacher could take their class on a field trip to the Galapagos islands.
“We’ve tried to take a deliberate approach to guide VR into applications that are very valuable and good,” Clay says. “This was both an important application and a way to say, ‘Hey world, this is how we think VR should be used.’”
A courtside experience
Educational apps aren’t the only ones attracting attention from Google and beyond. Startups and large companies alike are looking to capitalize on the VR boom, with a lot of focus on creating immersive concert and sporting experiences.
Imagine 5 million people watching the Super Bowl from the 50 yard line. It may sound outlandish — but the technology already exists today. NBA fans can get a VR courtside seat without the hassle and expense of an in-person game as part of the NBA’s League Pass package. (Curious how the experience feels? Check out this review.)
But are they as good as the real thing? Gary A. Martz, Wireless Marketing Product Line Manager at Intel, doesn’t think so.
“With Intel Sports, you have this experience that feels like you’re right there in a sporting event, but you’ve got this huge headset on,” Gary says. “You miss out on the personal interaction with the person sitting next to you. You can’t enjoy that with someone. So we’re not ‘there’ yet with giving people the experience they’re looking for.”
Making VR personal
Google recently announced its VR180 video format, which is seen as a game-changer in the VR industry. The traditional 360-degree VR format can be awkward, requiring users to spin around and look behind them to see everything — which isn’t something we typically do in real life. Instead, we usually see the world for what’s ahead of us and in our peripheral vision. The 180-degree format gives viewers a “dome” view of the world, where they can “explore” by looking forward, up, down, left, and right. Footage shot in this format can be processed on YouTube and is easy to watch whether you’re on a computer, mobile phone or a VR headset.
Coming in the first half of next year, Google will introduce cameras that support the new video format, making it more accessible to shoot engaging, 3D virtual reality content.
Clay has taken the VR180 technology for a test drive, filming his young sons and documenting places that are important to him. He even created a guided VR tour of the house he grew up in before it was torn down.
“Content from those cameras will be the first really compelling VR content they’ll see because it’s personalized to them,” Clay says. “Imagine being able to give your kids the chance to virtually ‘meet’ a grandparent that passed away before they were born. Personal memories or documentaries are the most interesting application for VR.”
So, what’s next? Making VR cheaper and less complicated — and therefore more accessible — is just the start. Meanwhile, Clay and other VR experts are looking forward to new and more immersive experiences on the horizon — and, virtually, a whole new world.