There is a thick fog drifting through the woods, obscuring everything more than few feet in front of my face. I can see a crooked sapling, and then behind me I hear the crunching of dry leaves. Turning, I spot several figures lurching slowly forward. As they come closer, details emerge: a stain of dark blood on one’s clothing, a piece of missing flesh on the arm of another. I can hear the ravenous murmuring grow louder, as the zombies close in from all sides.
This wild experience was delivered to me as a 360-degree film, posted on YouTube recently by AMC as part of its promotion for The Walking Dead. It felt especially terrifying to me because I was streaming on YouTube’s new VR app, which launches to the public today. I watched it on a Daydream View virtual reality headset powered by a Pixel smartphone. From the hardware to software, everything about this experience was crafted by Google, and it was terrific. I felt "present" in a horror film, a character sharing the same world with flesh-eating ghouls, not just watching it unfold as a spectator with a screen.
I got to spend a week reviewing YouTube’s VR and I found a lot to love. It’s a big step up from the VR experience Google has been able to deliver so far with its Cardboard headsets. The hardware means immersive films look better and head tracking is more accurate. More importantly, the software interface for casual browsing is terrific. Hopping from one video to another no longer feels like a chore, and you can keep an eye on what’s playing in the background while cueing up your next bite of entertainment.
While a lot of the immersive videos being created for YouTube VR are still in the experimental phase, the app itself feels polished and intuitive. It starts with a sense of place. A lot of the time, when you use a VR app, the home screen is a fully fleshed-out location meant to add atmosphere. The Wall Street Journal app in Daydream, for example, puts you into a luxury apartment, complete with fine art, gleaming modern furniture, and sumptuous views of midtown Manhattan. The Google Play app does a similar thing, putting you in a living room stocked with posters, statues, and memorabilia that serve as playful reminders of iconic characters from film and television.
YouTube gives Daydream a bedrock to build on
YouTube’s app does away with all that. "The key was to make it feel like a real physical environment without drawing your attention away from the content," said John Harding, who leads engineering for emerging experiences on YouTube. "It’s a very muted environment, it’s very subtle." You are standing inside an empty geodesic dome. Ahead of you a screen floats above an empty gray floor. YouTube’s familiar interface hangs suspended in the air around the screen. You can dismiss it once you start to watch, or bring it up again with a click, leaving your video to play behind semi-transparent icons and menus.
On top of this minimalist world, YouTube basically overlays its familiar interface. It’s like a floating wall of semi-translucent controls, and it works really well. The Daydream controller makes clicking and scrolling a snap. It's a struggle to type when you want to search, but luckily voice search is available. I spent time inside all the Google apps that come preinstalled inside Daydream, and it’s clear YouTube’s VR product has gotten a lot more attention than Google Street View or Google Play — both of which feel far less polished, and don’t take advantage of the new Daydream controller nearly as well. My colleague Adi Robertson feels Daydream is still waiting for its killer app. For me, YouTube VR is the most satisfying part of a major web property to virtual reality that I’ve ever used, an app I felt like coming back to every day, and one that definitely gives Daydream a bedrock to build on.
Along with crafting a location and adding environmental effects, YouTube had to decide on the dimensions of the experience. "Getting the depth cues right was also critical," said Harding. "How big does the screen feel? Am I sitting three feet away from a five-foot TV or am I in the middle of a movie theater with a huge screen? The actual field of view occupied is the same, but you get a very different sense of presence and level of comfort."
Right now the app presents you with a screen much bigger than a household TV floating about 10 feet in front of you. The effect, when you dismiss the floating controls, is powerful. I watched a UFC fight, and while it wasn’t an immersive 360 experience, I definitely felt myself sink more deeply into the action, with my headset blocking out the world around me, and nothing but the moving image to occupy my attention. YouTube has added some subtle touches to reinforce the feeling of presence in a physical space. While the screen is magically floating above the ground, it casts a flickering light onto the floor, shifting in color and strength to match the picture.
YouTube is now a physical place with environmental effects
The default view isn’t perfect. With my Pixel XL I found that about two-thirds of the screen was in focus and the rest was a bit blurred. Luckily YouTube has a nice fix for this: using the controller you can zoom the screen in and out. Make it smaller and you can keep the entire image in sharp focus at once. Zoom way in and you can have it fill your screen. This is a nice way to add an immersive quality to films that aren’t shot in 360. Videos shot from the perspective of a drone moving at high speed, for example, feel amazing when stretched to cover every corner of your view.
Another clever touch YouTube has included is the ability to grab your screen and reposition it. Just click and drag to your desired location. Like a lot of VR headsets, the Daydream View can get heavy on your head after a while, and I found mine tended to slip down if I didn’t hold it with one hand or reposition every few minutes. I could minimize the issue by reclining or by lying flat on my back, and to center the image I would just grab the screen and move it into the perfect position.
There was one major issue I had with the app. Since this was YouTube, the video was streaming. When my connection was strong enough, everything looked great. But when my connection occasionally faltered, especially when streaming a 360-degree video, YouTube downgraded the quality of the image, and the immersive world around me suddenly became a blurry, pixelated mess. To avoid this, I tweaked my settings, insisting the video stream in high quality instead of adapting on the fly. Unfortunately this meant the video would often pause, a white pinwheel circling in space as my video struggled to load.
Ads are a million times worse in VR
The big drawbacks to YouTube in VR are predicated on the very things that made YouTube a massive success: streaming and advertising. These are the twin pillars that helped the service grow into the global giant it is today. They are also absolutely miserable in virtual reality. When your eyes are inches from the screen, and you can’t look away, ads, adaptive bitrates, and buffering feel way more intrusive and grating.
Keeping streaming and advertising in the mix creates problems, but there is actually a simple solution to these issues, one that fits nicely into the company’s business model. If you’re a YouTube Red subscriber, you don’t have to sit through ads and you can download videos to watch offline, allowing you to sidestep the two biggest issues I had with the VR experience. So far YouTube hasn’t found a huge audience for its subscription offering, but Google is giving away three months of Red free with the purchase of a Pixel, so perhaps the added value it brings to the VR experience will convince a new cohort to join.
The software is one side of the YouTube VR experience, content is the other.There is a lot of 360 video on YouTube, and plenty of high-definition stuff that's worth watching in two dimensions. But I would be lying if I said most YouTube videos make sense in this new medium. I’ve got a mix of comedy, music, gaming, and martial arts videos churning through my daily feed, and the vast majority of those are not worth isolating myself in a headset. Most clips were still best while I’m washing the dishes, walking the dog, or riding on the subway, not blocking out the rest of the world so I can focus entirely on them.
YouTube is throwing big money behind 360 creation
YouTube isn’t oblivious to the fact that a lot of its popular content — makeup tutorials, unboxing gadgets, silly pranks, and webcam confessionals — aren’t particularly powerful when ported to virtual reality. At the same time, the company believes it has to leverage its current roster of creators if it hopes to make YouTube VR an app that users will return to on a daily basis. So it’s giving any creator with over 10,000 subscribers access to cameras and software for making 360 videos through its Creator Spaces. And it's paying for professional production studios to join some of its top talent to craft new videos that pay homage to the subject matter certain channels are known for while tweaking the formula so it’s worth watching in VR.
The success or failure of these efforts will have a big impact on Google’s push into virtual reality. YouTube VR is one of just a handful of apps you can use on the Daydream platform right now. There is a lot more to choose from inside an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, and even on Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, a comparable piece of casual VR hardware powered by software from Facebook’s Oculus. For Daydream to succeed, and by extension Google’s efforts in VR, the ecosystem has to be something users will want to come back to on a regular basis. Until third-party developers start building lots of experiences, YouTube’s creators are going to have to pick up the slack.
Take Merideth Foster, a YouTuber best known for videos on fashion and beauty. A 360-degree shot of her applying foundation and blush is probably a waste of everyone’s time. So YouTube partnered her with Surreal to craft a virtual tour of her apartment instead. Fousey Tube, a channel built around pranks and challenges, used skydiving to justify a 360-degree video.
Some creators kept their tried-and-true formula while adding a few bells and whistles for VR. Tastemade, a cooking channel, simply stuck a 360 camera into the kitchen, so viewers can feel like they are standing right alongside the hosts. They also experimented with animated overlays that pop up during the action. Instead of a two-dimensional video that cuts from a shot of the cook to a close-up of the food prep, the VR version drops a visual of eggs being whisked right in front of the chef. It’s funny and wonderful and weird and doesn’t always work well. It’s mixed-reality editing, a new approach for a new medium.
"As I’ve watched VR for the last year and a half, I’ve started to see a lot of similarities to the early days of web video," says Jamie Byrne, a 10-year veteran of YouTube who started working at the company before it was acquired by Google. "If you had told anyone back then that videos of people putting on make-up, making let's play videos, or taking gadgets out of a box would be worth billions, they would have said you were crazy. But of course that’s the reality today."
"We’re still kind of in year zero with VR."
Byrne is now the creative director for YouTube VR, tasked with helping creators get the tools, technology, and support they need to make videos for this new medium. "We’re still kind of in year zero with VR or maybe you could call it year one," he told me. "When we start to think about content experiences, I don’t think anyone knows what’s gonna work and what’s not gonna work. I think what’s gonna drive incredible amounts of watch time, what’s gonna create daily viewership in VR, I don’t think people know the answers to those questions."
I came away from these videos thinking they might appeal to fans of certain YouTuber’s as an occasional treat. I wasn’t sold on the idea that 360 video was strong enough to be worth the regular investment of time and money for channels that are more about casual intimacy than immersive spectacle. But I expect things to change rapidly as YouTube and its creators get a sense of what clicks with the slowly growing audience of VR headset owners.
Right now YouTube VR is simply leveraging its existing library of content and helping its popular creators figure out how to adapt the genres that already work for them to the medium of immersive videos. But it’s clear that the team hopes YouTube will eventually be more than just linear film users can watch. "We’ve gone from rectangular video to 360 to 360 stereoscopic with positional audio. We’re looking at how do we continue to push the format forward," says Harding. "We want to push the boundaries of what it means to have immersive content. Whether that means six degrees of freedom, being able to move around, or being able to interact with things, it’s definitely a direction that we’re exploring."