Google’s vision for VR: YouTube, smartphones and a ‘virtual hand’

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Google will offer the popular videos for VR and will sell a plastic headset in which consumers will be able insert a phone along with a controller that serves as a hand

If Google gets its way, you will explore the world with your phone strapped over your eyes.

At its annual developer meeting in Silicon Valley, the internet company showed how it plans to get more people use virtual reality in the coming year by cooking the technology into newer smartphones. The vision is for the worlds billions of people to ditch the physical world and explore far off places, take in the news, gratify a friend or, as Google repeatedly demonstrated Thursday, water a virtual garden.

Its very natural to water things in VR when you have a watering can, told Clay Bavor, Googles vice-president of virtual reality.

While rival technology companies such as Facebook are constructing state-of-the-art virtual reality tools that rely on powerful desktop computers, Google is taking a different track. On Thursday, it said it will soon start selling a plastic headset in which consumers will insert their smartphones and a controller that serves as a virtual hand. Google currently offers a cardboard smartphone holder that acts as a low-tech headset but offers a less-than-realistic virtual world.

Were really obsessed about this idea of democratizing VR, Bavor said on stage. Google for instance announced it will start offering YouTube videos for virtual reality and has partnered with news organizations, such as the New York Times, to try to bring readers into narratives.

Clay Bavor: Were genuinely obsessed about this idea of democratizing VR. Photograph: Stephen Lam/ Reuters

VR has long been associated with games and has always seemed like a technology for the truly geeky. Indeed, some of the most popular apps for Facebooks Oculus Rift headset allow people to step into the shoes of an American football quarterback or superstar basketball player.

But Silicon Valley is betting the technology will gain true prominence as a route for people to devour information online. Why read about a Syrian refugee camp when you can visit one? Or who needs to look at pictures of Glacier National Park when you are able to hike it virtually?

Repeatedly, Google executives Thursday talked about how they were discovering how to stimulate virtual experiences just as fulfilling as their physical equivalents. The key, they said, is devoting people a controller that enable them to use their hands to manipulate the real world.

Picking something up with your hands is one of the most natural and satisfying experiences, said Stefan Welker, a VR software engineer at Google, before demonstrating the virtual watering can for the virtual garden.

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He then showed how people could construct their own virtual drum kits they could play with virtual sticks before hurling the virtual drums across the virtual practise room. We also learned everyone really likes hurling things in VR, Welker said.

Google executives acknowledged this begs an obvious question: why?

Wheres the narrative? Wheres the utility? asked Mike Podwal, product manager for Googles cardboard VR headset. His answer: We learned that sometimes simply being somewhere astonishing is enough.

Podwal then showed how Google could place users on the tip of a high dive dozens of feet above a virtual pool. People look down, he told, but many are too scared to take the plunge.

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