Last November, Google released the fancy Daydream View virtual reality headset, two years after placing VR glasses in a cardboard box and giving them out to millions of people.
Launched exclusively with Daydream View was the YouTube VR app. And just like that, every cat video or viral hit on YouTube could be viewed in widescreen virtual reality.
So quite literally, YouTube is all in with virtual reality.
But VR poses an existential challenge the kings of online video can’t surmount simply by stuffing 2D videos into VR. For YouTube to work in virtual reality it has to be something you experience, not just watch — and that’s something the 12-year-old company has never really had to do. “We recognize that we’re in the very early days of VR video,” Jamie Byrne, Director, Global Creator & Enterprise Partnerships at YouTube, told Digital Trends in an interview. “A lot of our activities are really learning what works and what doesn’t.”
YouTube put its virtual reality plans on full display at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with the YouTube House. In it, YouTube hosted panels about the current state of VR and gave attendees a chance to try out the Google Daydream. Digital Trends spoke with Byrne prior to the Festival about how YouTube is working at bringing virtual reality mainstream — and what it means to be a virtual star these days.
Before YouTube, your best shot of getting fame for something you filmed yourself was the rare opportunity to be the butt of the joke on America’s Funniest Home Videos circa 1992. With the streaming site, however, anyone could make millions as a video blogger or vlogger, a profession popularized by YouTube.
“[YouTube] wants people to revolutionize the very concept of VR.”
“If you think about beauty tutorials, that didn’t exist as a content format 10 years ago,” Byrne said. “Today it’s a billion-dollar business.” YouTube is banking on its crop of Creators to “create a VR kind of format” that in five years will be its own genre, just as beauty tutorials sprang up from nowhere. The site does not simply want people making VR videos, in other words: it wants people to revolutionize the very concept of VR.
But is that realistic, given current tools? After all, shooting and uploading a 2D video for YouTube is so easy a 10-year old communist can do it with relative ease. But filming and stitching together a 360-degree video for virtual reality is not as seamless, and its difficulty could preclude the average YouTuber from making any VR videos.
To address the reality of virtual reality, YouTube has held a number of seminars with select creators in video blogging, gaming, how-to videos, beauty tutorials, and other popular content genres to train and educate them on filming VR content. “That’s everything from production techniques to what viewers are responding to on the platform,” Byrne says. YouTube consolidates that information and passes along best practices to the creators.
Google’s VR cameras, called Jump cameras, are also integral to YouTube’s efforts to mainstream virtual reality. The cameras can connect to Jump Assembler, a cloud-based system that converts raw footage into VR and handles all of the stitching by simply uploading the files.
The cameras are available to use at YouTube Space locations, which are open only to creators with more than 10,000 YouTube subscribers. YouTube also loans out the camera to people who want to shoot one piece of VR content over a period of time, according to Byrne. YouTube is so eager to get YouTube VR content into the world that the company gives away Jump cameras at no charge to partners who have numerous VR projects planned.
NO GATEKEEPER = VOMITS
YouTube VR shares more than just a video library with the standard platform; it also shares the open ecosystem. Anyone can upload VR content to YouTube, and Byrne says there will be no “gatekeepers” approving what VR content makes it on the platform. In that respect, VR will be treated the same as any other video on YouTube, even though it is vastly different.
A 2D video constantly changing camera angles would be more frustrating than sickening to the viewer. A VR video with disorienting camera angles (which disassociates what the viewer sees from what they feel) can and has caused motion sickness. YouTube not screening VR videos for potential health risks could leave a lot of viewers swapping their Daydream View for a waste bin to throw up in.
YouTube has something of a solution: recommendations. “We have algorithms that recommend to people what to watch next,” Byrne said. “I think if the algorithms saw people starting a video that made someone sick and leaving immediately they would probably not recommend that video.”
Before a 25-year-old Tay Zonday’s surreal bass singing on Chocolate Rain went viral in 2007, there was no real blueprint on how to make a popular video on the then two-year-old YouTube. Allowing any and everyone to upload content to YouTube helped it learn what unconventional things people love to watch. Byrne says initial YouTube VR activity suggests the content that gives a “view into someone’s world that you can not get from a 2D video” is the most popular so far. People go to YouTube to learn how to build houses. On YouTube VR, people want to be in the house.
Popular lifestyle vlogger Meredith Foster gave a VR tour of her apartment last November, and the video has since attracted a little more than one million views. Those number may not scream viral hit, especially compared to the 3.3 million views her 2D satirical video Not A Queen attracted in roughly the same time frame. YouTube also doesn’t provide a breakdown of how many views come from VR viewing, so there isn’t really a way to know what’s popular on YouTube VR, unless YouTube tells us.
YouTube may have made your home videos cool, but its prescience of the next big trend has faltered in the past. “There was a moment when 3D was becoming a thing, so we supported that,” Byrne said. YouTube was so big on 3D videos being the future that it allowed you to select 3D as a video quality option along with 1080p and other popular formats, in April 2012.
Fast forward five years and all of the major 3D TV manufacturers have abandoned the video format — and YouTube has removed the 3D video option, even for videos it used to promote the feature. If people didn’t want to put on glasses to see YouTube videos before, what would make them want to strap a headset on to look around the same videos they have enjoyed in 2D for more than a decade?
YouTube took a while itself to fully dive into virtual reality after supporting 360-degree video in mid 2015. Work on a standalone YouTube VR app actually started as a “small project that just one engineer was working on with 360-degree videos,” according to Byrne. Not until a year before its November 2016 release did YouTube feel VR had enough potential to be “the next wave of computing” for it to dedicate an entire team to developing the app.
Google has invested in making the hardware to create and watch virtual reality content, so it is unlikely YouTube will abandon its VR ambitions even if adoption is not good enough. But if VR had to prove its potential before YouTube dedicated money to the app, it’s possible the company could scale back considerably if that future never comes. Just as it did with 3D.
For now, YouTube is all in with virtual reality. Let’s see if the revolution comes.