Google VR And The Quest For Wireless, Affordable Virtual Reality

A Q&A with Google's Head of VR, Clay Bavor
Google VR Clay Bavor
Google's Clay Bavor Google
Google Cardboard is the most affordable VR headset around. Made literally out of cardboard, simply insert a smartphone and Google will take you halfway around the world or to a museum. But the company is starting to get serious about virtual reality.

Cardboard is convenient from the perspective of cost and usability, but is lacking in processing power, a method of interacting within the virtual world (save for one button on the side) or even an option to strap the headset to your head like competing VR helmets. But that may soon change.

Google’s Clay Bavor is leading the search company’s virtual reality efforts. While the VR team remains tight-lipped about the mythical all-in-one, PC-free virtual reality headset that doesn’t require you put a phone inside, Bavor did open up about what Google is prioritizing in a possible follow-up product. One thing is certain: virtual reality is something the company is taking seriously.

Popular Science: Most uses for virtual reality currently lie within gaming. But Google isn’t a gaming company. Why invest in VR?

Clay Bavor: Google has always cared about information. If you look back at our founding mission, it’s to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. Information is the written word and printed word. But images are also information. It’s a lot easier to understand what a tiger looks like by looking at a photo or a video. In fact one of the more popular categories on YouTube is instructional videos, where people walk you through doing complex stuff: changing parts in a toilet, fixing a spark plug in an engine, etc.

But I think experience, in many cases, is the richest form of information. There’s a reason that people like meeting in person. There’s a world of difference between reading a description of walking the streets of Paris, watching a video of Paris and actually visiting Paris. In my mind VR enables people to more directly experience things and have much greater access to that type of information. So for me it fits very naturally with what Google has always been about. Which is information and giving people access to that information.

You guys technically have a VR headset out there already. Where is Google Cardboard headed?

CB: We’ve learned so much with Cardboard. We’re not quite ready to speak about that but it’s taught us the importance of it being mobile. You don’t need to go somewhere in order to experience VR, instead you can bring it with you. I think another important part of it is how approachable it is. People understand it, it’s not scary, it’s easily understood. Then finally there’s this kind of delight in it, there’s this magic in it that you use this thing you already have—your smartphone—that you thought could only be a telephone, a web browser, something you get email on. And it turns it into something else entirely—a movie theater in your bag, something of a teleporter to take you places, a portable arcade.

So we want to embrace many of the things we think Cardboard got right: mobility, comfort, approachability, low cost. But then of course, the smartphones that Cardboard makes use of, were meant to be first and foremost smartphones. They weren’t designed with virtual reality in mind, and Cardboard of course is just cardboard. And so I think that if you’re more intentional in designing phones, designing software and go beyond Cardboard you can do something pretty magical that is even higher quality, higher performance and so on. But while maintaining many of the attributes that make Cardboard so powerful and appealing.

So you’re emphasizing mobility, comfort and ease of use. Anything else?

CB: One of the other things that limits Cardboard at this point is, there is one button. Virtual reality is so rich in how you can be immersed in it. But you also want to be able to interact with those elements more richly. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. It’s a challenging problem, to do it in a way that any person can immediately get comfortable and familiar with—yet do it in a way that is still expressive. And we can do a variety of things with it. And so that’s one of the things we’ve been trying to balance and that we’re pretty excited about.

How does VR tie into Android and the company’s larger mission?

CB: What’s so exciting about Android is you have many different companies, developers and manufacturers, using it in different ways and exploring all of these different spaces. And just as we did with Cardboard and Android, one of the things we hope to do is enable an entire ecosystem to explore.

Will Google’s investment in Magic Leap, which creates augmented reality, affect its VR efforts?

CB: It is just an investment, so they’re a separate company. But we love what they’re doing, were excited about augmented reality and we think they’re a great team and amazing company. Our efforts at Google really are focused on virtual reality and, in particular, virtual reality as it grows out from some of the insights of Cardboard. Mobile, making good use of smartphones and really leaning into that.

So no chance we’ll see AR from Google?

CB: Google works on many things and “never” is a long time. Right now our focus is very much on virtual reality and I think that’s reflected in how much we’ve done around Cardboard. All of the work we’ve done in our applications, YouTube VR as an example, or Spotlight Stories—another project from Google, ported to virtual reality. And then our efforts around things like Jump, where we partner with GoPro to capture high quality VR video. Enabling VR video capture, and even purpose built VR applications. For example, Expeditions: which is a tool for teams that enables them to take their classes on field trips to anywhere. Kind of a field trip in a box that uses Cardboard, a tablet and synchronizes all 30 of the Cardboards so that a class can go somewhere together. So that’s really our focus.

360-degree videos let you pan around the scene of a footage as it plays. Viewing said video in virtual reality like Google’s Cardboard and other headsets let you move your head to look around.

Games in VR are amazing, even this early in virtual reality’s lifecycle. What is the killer app for non-gaming VR?

CB: I don’t think there will be “a” killer use case for VR. There will be many. Just as there have been many killer applications for computers, for smartphones, virtual reality in time will become just a general computing device that will enable you to do many things. From interactive entertainment and gaming to working on a plane. Imagine putting on your goggles, and having the largest monitor you’ve ever worked on in front of you, unroll your keyboard with the view of Hawaii or Yosemite instead of seat 57H.

In the near term though, I think we already have line of sight to some pretty powerful applications. And I think one of the most compelling there is visiting places on earth that would otherwise be too far, too expensive or too scarce to visit yourself. And as I think about it, everyone has a musician they wish they could hang out with on stage. Everyone has a sports team that they would love to have a courtside seat to watch that game. Everyone has a place, and it could be home or be on the other side of the earth, that they’d love to visit that they can’t because today you need to hop on a plane for 12 hours and or spend a bunch of money. And we already are on the verge to having the technology to capture—the cameras and microphone and so on needed—to capture the environment and experience and then digitize it and then using a virtual reality viewer to recreate it for as many people that would like to participate in it.

So even though I never saw Prince live, I could catch him in VR?

CB: Well, it’s a bit sad but that’s actually a really good point. Which is, if we had started recording Prince’s concerts in virtual reality a few years ago, you would be able to go to a Prince concert and feel as if you were actually there. We missed the window with him but I hope we don’t miss the window on a thousand other artists musicians, beautiful places, events, moments in history and so on.

Google Cardboard
Bavor is taking what Google has learned from Cardboard to bolster the company’s next VR product Xavier Harding

How important is it to make VR mobile, not tethered to a computing source?

CB: Our priority is on building a great product. And a great experience for our users. And there are many dimensions you need to get right. From comfort, to quality of performance, to low latency and high frame rates, to then the device itself. It should be something that you want to have, that you want to use and that you can take with you. Without going into more detail i think we’re focused on building a really really great experience that we think… from the beginning, Cardboard has been about VR for everyone. We want to build a product that is high quality and high performance, but easy to use and appealing so that it too can be for everyone. Just as we wanted to bring the world’s information to everyone, we wanted to bring VR for everyone.

What have you learned since you took over as Google’s head of VR?

You’re saving the long questions for the end. (very long pause) This goes back to the last question, but one of the most interesting things we’ve learned is that to develop for virtual reality, you can actually look to real reality for a lot of inspiration. How do you do things in the real world? And then how do you translate those into VR? In the real world, to open a door there’s a handle. It calls you and says “Hey, open this door” and we found that you can use so called affordances, hint to the user in virtual reality that says, “Hey you can poke this or point to this or open this” using these very physical metaphors. And the neat thing is, our brains are already really good at interacting and operating in the real world so if you borrow some of those same things and use them in virtual reality, you already know how that you’re designing an experience that most people will kind of get.

For example, if I hear someone say, “hey” to my right, I just intuitively look to my right. There’s an audio cue there, my brain can interpret from variations and volume the things that is over there. We can use similar audio cues to move people about in a scene. And so in a video, for example, if we want to draw users’ attention to another part of the scene, you can use audio cues with spatial audio to pull someone’s attention that way. Just like in the real world. And I think it’s been surprising how many of these real to virtual world kind of user interface and design analogies you can go off. But also you can get into some of the limits today of virtual reality. You don’t have haptic feedback, touch feedback, so that handle I talked about only works so well. Because you don’t actually feel a handle there. That’s one of about a million things I’ve learned about virtual reality, but one of the most interesting. To design for the virtual, you can learn a lot from the real world.

What challenges have surprised you?

There are so many interesting problems to solve: interesting problems in rendering, in displays, optics, in user interfaces, in ergonomics, in input and controllers. Everything is interesting. What struck me is everything is new and the people working in VR right now are doing the equivalent of [building an operating system]. For example, figuring out that you close a window with an X in the upper left like on the original Mac. We’re doing the equivalent of that right now for virtual reality. What is a button? What is a menu? Do you go between apps or worlds? Is it a game or an experience? How do you make people feel comfortable?

Like desktops and windows in the real world and their digital PC equivalents, figuring out the right metaphors we’ll use to operate these virtual objects?

It’s one of many interesting challenges to get through but i think as one of the most compelling because in virtual reality you have this really flexible canvas that can display anything, that’s the whole point of VR. It contains anything from anywhere. So you have this infinitely flexible canvas and we need to design for that infinitely flexible canvas. And we’ve learned some things, we’ve figured some things out and what’s so exciting is that there are so many unknowns. It’s uncharted territory but exciting and i think important uncharted territory. So we’re very focused on working our way through that landscape as we can and bringing some great experiences and products to the world. And making VR accessible, affordable and compelling for everyone.