IT’S A RARE sunny day in Seattle, Washington, and I’m standing in the grass outside a nondescript office building with engineers in hoodies strolling nearby. One of them, weirdly, is riding a unicycle. I look behind me; there’s a canal, with water streaming by soothingly. I look down and notice a dark, narrow shadow in the grass. Maybe it’s the shadow of a strangely shaped tree? I look up—yes, there are a few trees around, but none that would cast a shadow that looked that misshapen.
“There’s a weird shadow on the ground,” I say out loud, knowing someone would be able to explain it to me.
“Oh—that must be the Jump camera rig.” I hear the disembodied voice of Husain Bengali, a product manager at Jump, Google’s virtual reality platform.
Time to get back to reality. I lower Google’s virtual reality set, Cardboard, that I’ve been holding up to my face, and instantly I’m back in a spartan room—which had been scrubbed clean of confidential blueprints before my arrival, I’m told—at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California. Bengali was showing me the first ever 360-degree virtual reality video made by his team, hastily filmed right outside the Jump offices by Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle. “After we created that video and I watched it, that was the first moment I realized our team was on the right track,” Bengali beams. He’s part of the group leading the charge for innovative virtual reality video formats, and I’m getting a demo of the work they’re releasing to the world today as part of YouTube’s big, um, jump into VR.
I can see why Bengali is so proud. The video is impressive—most of all, because I could see how close and far the objects in the scene were to me. The illusion of depth is convincing. The guy on the unicycle (one of the Jump engineers, apparently) was several feet away. The other guys were walking closer to me. And the stream of water, right behind me, seemed near enough that I could jump in if I wanted to.
Today, YouTube is unveiling 360-degree virtual reality videos and a virtual movie theater for all YouTube videos, available to anyone with a Google Cardboard headset. The goal is to “democratize virtual reality” and “bring VR to everybody, no matter who you are or what your favorite piece of content is,” YouTube says. “Virtual reality makes the experience of being there even more awesome and immersive.”
At launch, YouTube is featuring ten or so lifelike, 360-degree VR videos that the company shot itself. These include a tour of an Icelandic glacier, a performance by a violinist, and a computer-generated recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But Bengali says he expects that library of content to grow “very rapidly,” especially as the company works with YouTube creators to get more VR content up on the platform. Any video, meanwhile, that had been filmed to showcase YouTube’s 360-degree video technology, which it unveiled in March, is viewable using a smartphone and Cardboard, too.
In an even more ambitious move, YouTube is also making every clip in its massive database viewable in a “virtual movie theater.” Tap the Cardboard button that now appears within the YouTube app while watching video on your phone, and the video view changes. You can pop your phone into Cardboard and watch the clip in a kind of floating theater view. When you move your head, you’re prompted to “click to recenter” the clip, and view readjusts right with you. It would be great, one can imagine, for watching YouTube clips in bed with the VR headset balanced on your face.
“This is not just the first time that people can watch Jump virtual reality video, but any VR video,” Bengali says.