Just about everyone agrees virtual and augmented reality are going to be important. The tech already sort of works, and will get better quickly from here. Gadgets offering the ability to truly feel as if you’ve been transported to another place, or to superimpose the digital world on the real one, will be transformative. Somehow. Eventually. For some reason. No one knows exactly what AR and VR will be good for, or when. They just know it’s coming.
Clay Bavor, the leader of Google’s virtual reality team, is trying to strike a difficult balance: Bavor and his team are trying to build products that people will buy and use now, while preparing for the future, who knows how long from now, when all this world-changing stuff starts to happen. Right now, before all the tech is ready and everyone’s used to it, coming up with things people want is tricky. (Just ask the folks at Oculus and Vive.) But recently, Bavor says he’s found something that might be special: VR as a way to capture and relive important memories in your life.
Eyes on Eyes
This week at CES, Google’s partners are announcing two new cameras that support the VR180 standard, which refers to a new way of capturing 180-degree panoramic images. Lenovo’s making the Mirage Camera, designed to go along with the Mirage Solo headset, a completely wireless and self-sufficient Daydream VR headset. Yi, another Chinese manufacturer, is making a similar camera called the Horizon.
Yi’s Horizon camera is another VR180 camera built in partnership with Google’s virtual reality team.
Both are basically just point-and-shoots with two lenses on the front rather than one. They capture 4K, three-dimensional video that you can watch on YouTube, in Google Photos, or in any VR headset. They’re not the highest-tech VR things you’ve ever seen, but they might be the easiest to understand. Which is precisely the point.
“People love going places,” Bavor says. “They love going places.” Google’s Earth VR and Street View apps are both hugely popular among VR users, and Expeditions, a virtual field-trip platform, has proven popular in schools. It’s not surprising, then, that the Google VR team has spent a lot of time thinking about how to help people capture places in VR for themselves and others to visit again later. “But when we looked at how people use their cameras, it’s very seldom that it’s like, ‘Let me take an aesthetically beautiful, well-composed photo,” Bavor says. “It’s about remembering a moment.” The photos, he says, aren’t even really the point. It’s about what happens when you look at them, the memories you get to re-live. And when you watch them back, the stereoscopic and super-wide footage feels so much more immersive than any photograph you’ve ever seen.
Bringin’ Us Back
Both new VR180 cameras can livestream directly to YouTube, or save your memories to Google Photos. The Photos integration was particularly important, Bavor says, “because we see this being such a strong product for memory capture. And memories live in your own private repository of photos until you decide otherwise.” If you want a clue of where this is all going, look at the Pensieve, the swirling store of memories that comes up repeatedly in Harry Potter. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get there fully,” Bavor says, “but I think there’s something universal about memory and nostalgia and a desire to reflect on, step back into, be a part of, memories or experiences or time with people you care about.”
The best version of this tech, Bavor guesses, would require either tiling your walls with camera lenses, or some mythical tricorder device that recorded everything and everyone all the time. (He says both are roughly impossible, but has clearly given the idea a lot of thought.) But it’s one big step in the right direction when you can take photos with a camera that sees roughly as you do—the cameras’ lenses are the exact distance apart of the average person’s pupils—and can faithfully display the scene in three dimensions. You can’t move in it yet, but you can see it as it was.
VR180, like most things in VR right now, is the simple-but-usable version of what will someday be much cooler. It exists for a few reasons: because 360-degree video is actually really complicated to do well, because there aren’t many great ways to watch 360 video, and because even when they do watch super-immersive footage, viewers don’t tend to look around much. With VR180, your camera can look and operate more like a regular point-and-shoot, and viewers get a similarly immersive feel without having to constantly spin around.
The Mirage Solo headset comes from the same intention. It’s really just high-end smartphone parts inside a headset, so you don’t have to dock yours and drain the battery. Google and Lenovo are hoping that the built-in positional tracking combines with the ease of use to make the Mirage Solo so easy and fun you find yourself using it more. It’s not the most powerful technology possible, or even the most powerful available. It’s just simple and easy, which Google seems to think might be even more important.
It may not be VR’s final destination, but Bavor’s confident VR180 offers a big leap forward. And when it comes to your memories, every step matters. “I have some black and white photos of my great grandparents,” he says. “They’re terrible photos, but that’s them! It’s the best available technology.” He’s not concerned that people will think VR180 feels like a half-step or a cop out. He’s convinced they’ll say the same things they say now, looking back at shoulder-mounted camcorder footage and grainy photos: I wish they had the tech I have now, back then. “Can you imagine if we had video of George Washington?” Bavor asks at one point during our conversation. “That’s such a random example, but can you imagine how awesome that would be?” Eventually, I get the picture: Every step better counts, and Bavor’s in a desperate rush to make sure everyone can use the best thing yet as soon as possible. And then he goes back, and tries to make it even better. Pensieve or bust.