The National Conversation: Clay Bavor
To champions of virtual reality, we are at a place in history similar to the dawn of television or the launch of the internet. VR, as it’s called, could completely change the way we move through the world. While the technology has the potential to integrate into our everyday lives, the path to that future is uncertain.
VR is already moving beyond entertainment and into areas such as education and journalism—see November 2015, when The New York Times distributed more than a million Google Cardboards along with the Sunday paper to its print subscribers. Those simple cardboard and plastic goggles, combined with the technology in your everyday smartphone, transported Times readers to a war-torn village in eastern Ukraine, a refuge for displaced people in South Sudan, and a helicopter 1,000 feet above Manhattan.
Clay Bavor, Google’s vice president of virtual and augmented reality, or, put more simply, Google’s VR chief, is responsible for Google Cardboard. In the intervening years, Bavor has led the tech giant’s efforts in developing Tango, a pioneering technology in the augmented reality space, and Daydream, the company’s latest VR platform. Bavor’s motto? “VR for everyone.”
We spoke with Bavor over Google Hangout; with great enthusiasm, he helped paint a picture of where this emerging technology can take us.
You’ve experienced a lot more VR than most of us. Does it still strike you as uncanny?
In a lot of these experiences your brain fully suspends disbelief. The clearest example I can give you is an experience that we show many people who are seeing VR for the first time. We call it “The Diving Board.” It starts with a pool in front of you. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen in real life, but your mind nearly says, “I’m poolside. Oh, cool.” We say, “Would you like to go to the high dive?” We push a button and you’re teleported to this diving board that’s 50 meters high.
What happens is fascinating. People lower their center of gravity. They crouch because that’s what we’ve evolved for literally millions of years to do if we’re on the edge of a cliff or great height. They’ll grab for a railing that’s not actually there. Then we ask, “Hey, can you walk to the end of the diving board and step off?” Most people can’t do it.
Now, if you pause and ask yourself, “Am I experiencing reality directly?” Intellectually, you know immediately, “No, of course not. I can see some pixels. It doesn’t look real.” That’s the interesting thing, which is it’s almost like our ancestors’ brains, our visceral response is, “I’m there.” Our intellectual response is, “This doesn’t seem quite real,” but the visceral response tends to be the one that you feel most.
I’m not sure if I answered your question there, but intellectually, it’s easy to tell that it’s clearly not real. But in your gut, it sure feels real when you’re on that diving board.
Yes, that’s what I was wondering. Do you still get that gut sensation when you experience VR?
Oh, absolutely. Even having experienced a lot, I can’t not feel like I’m transported. That’s the whole point.
Is it too early to tell which applications are best for AR as opposed to VR?
We’ve only thought of 2 to 5 percent of what either of the technologies are going to do. In that sense, yes, it is too early because there’s so much territory left to explore. That said, you can see how these different places on this spectrum of immersive computing would be better or worse suited for different things. For example, if you wanted to take a tour of Paris or preview a hotel room that you’re thinking about staying in or maybe step back inside an important memory that you captured using a VR camera, virtual reality would be better suited for that. If instead you wanted to look at an object, maybe a product you’re thinking about buying, a bag or a pair of shoes or an architectural model that you wanted to visualize in 3-D, AR would be better.
Would you say AR is better for nonfiction and VR for the fictional and imagined, or is that thinking still too binary?
I think directionally, that’s correct. Maybe it’s not fiction versus nonfiction but…. Well, if VR transports you, what kinds of things are transporting? Well, stories, games, entertainment, movies, books, and also, by the way, travel. Physically, traveling is transporting. It’s an obvious and literal thing to say, but you can imagine being able to put on some goggles a few years from now and instantaneously waking up and finding yourself on a busy street corner in Tokyo or with a view of Machu Picchu. It could be even live, where you’re actually seeing what’s happening there in that moment.
I think entertainment, experiential things—VR will lean that way. I think more informational tools—AR will lean that way. It will be, “Hey, I’m thinking about buying a couch. Let me see what it looks like through the viewfinder of my phone.” Or it’ll be, “Hey, how do I get to the exit of this mall?” Your phone will overlay footsteps on the ground in front of you. You’ll be able to follow those out. It’s a bit more nuanced than fiction or nonfiction, but I think directionally, the idea is right.
So much of the conversation about VR is focused on its potential. Maybe we could fast-forward to that future. What would you expect to see in 10 or 20 years’ time?
In 10 or 20 years, I think the distinction between VR and AR will start to go away. You’ll have eyeglasses that might look not a lot different from mine, maybe a bit more wraparound, so for virtual reality use cases it would fill more of your field of vision. Day to day you’d look through them just like you would normal eyeglasses.
I could have a virtual assistant. It could be a puppy or a cute robot or whatever taking me to my next meeting just as if I had a guide in the building I’m in. In the future, these glasses would enable us to communicate from a thousand miles away as if we’re in the same room. Which is great for things like eye contact, which is so important in social interactions and the sense of physical space, because we’ve evolved for millions of years to be attuned to these subtle social cues. If I lean in to make a point, that means something.
Those same glasses could take me into an entirely different place. For example, if I were traveling on a business trip, my glasses could go into virtual reality mode, fully immersive mode. I could actually have the experience of being at home. It would feel to me as if I were at home with my kids at the breakfast table.
That’s where I believe this will converge. That’s a long way out. There are fundamental technologies that we have not yet invented to get there. This is not going to happen tomorrow but as a North Star, glasses like mine that can view anywhere on this spectrum of immersive computing. That’s where it goes. Actually talking about it I get really excited.
Do you see where VR can assist in education?
The first application for virtual reality that we released is called Google Expeditions. Expeditions is a tool for teachers to take classes on virtual reality field trips to anywhere. The way it works is a kit shows up with 30 Google Cardboards and a tablet for the teacher. The teacher can browse through hundreds of different expeditions, as we call them, and say, “OK class, as a marine biology class, today we’re going to go to the Galapagos Islands. Everyone grab your Cardboard.” Simultaneously all 30 students in their Cardboards are in the Galapagos Islands.
The teacher can point out, “Oh, and if you look over here you can see this type of coral. OK, let’s now go onto the land. Here are the tortoises. Look over here.” What we’ve seen is it’s a tremendously powerful teaching tool, not just in that it’s engaging, but it’s novel and fun. It is all of those things, and it helps teachers get the concepts and ideas across.
What if you had a virtual physics playground? You’re learning physics, Newton’s laws of motion. You could set up any kind of device of arbitrary complexity with pulleys and levers and understanding how lever arms work and torque and all of these things. Every student could set up their own contraption or a chemistry lab immediately. What happens if we pour this into this? Well, often you don’t want to do that in the real world. It’s dangerous or it’s expensive. Here’s a way to give students the ability to quickly and inexpensively just experience and do things they otherwise might not be able to.
How do you see the technology affecting the art world?
I’m not sure whether or not you’ve seen or used an app we’ve built called Tilt Brush, but Tilt Brush lets anyone paint in three-dimensional space using virtual reality. It’s hard to get your mind around it. What often people will do is they’ll draw a square in VR thinking they’re drawing on a flat canvas because that’s how we’ve all drawn our whole lives, but then they move around to the side of it and then, “Oh, it exists in 3D space.” Then they realize, “Oh my goodness I can paint a cube. Oh wait, I can paint a tent or a tepee and go sit inside of it.” This idea of having a sculpture, an object, a concept, an idea in your head and being able to translate it directly into physical space in a way that feels real is, I think, one of the neatest and most powerful things about virtual reality. I fully expect to have art created in Tilt Brush in virtual reality in the great museums of the world in the next decade because it just lets you do things that you can’t with any other medium.
One other example that I love is a clothing designer using Tilt Brush to basically mock up different articles of clothing, dresses, pants, blouses, shirts, and so on before making a single stitch. The way he works is basically bringing a virtual mannequin into Tilt Brush. That’s the way you start when you’re making a dress. You have a mannequin and you sew the dress around that. He basically paints with fabric using Tilt Brush. He gets ideas out of his head, into space, walks around them, and sees them just as he’d see them with fabric and thread in real life. I think that, for me, was just so cool because it’s so obviously this, not shortcut, but new tool in creativity and making ideas real. I love that.
How do you see this technology affecting our personal lives?
In capturing important memories. In the next few years there will be VR cameras that will give you an accurate sense of depth and scale where you’ll step back into the image and you will really feel like you’re there. I know this because I’ve been using many of our own internal prototypes of these cameras. I’m using one for important things like my grandmother turning 90 this year. I hope she makes it to 100, but she’s old. I want to make sure that I do what I can to remember her, to enable my kids to remember her. The idea of putting this memory recorder on a table and then having a conversation with someone, being able to step back into that conversation as if you’re across the table from them is powerful.
I’ve already used it for recording moments with my young kids. Even a year later, stepping back into those is powerful. I’m back there when they were 2 or 3. I can only imagine how I’ll feel 20 years from now, when they’re grown adults and off to college or in their jobs or on the other side of the country.
How would you characterize where we are right now with this technology?
We’re really in the very first generation of these devices. I’ve used the analogy before—it’s like we’re building airplanes from bicycle and car parts. It’s the way the Wright brothers started: It’s technically possible to do it, you can make something fly that way, but it’s not at all the 787 or the 747 or anything approaching that. I think as the technologies improve and as people figure out how to use the medium and the quality of the experiences in the medium go up, I think you’re going to have more and more of the value and interest in VR being realized as opposed to forecasted.
Maybe the last analogy that may be helpful is when cinema was invented people knew there was something there, but people did what they did with still cameras, which is they just took a video of a scene with nothing happening. The idea that you could use it to tell a story and create a film and have cuts between different views and zoom in and zoom out and have an establishing shot and how to do dialogue between two characters, that took decades to develop.
With virtual reality today, people are largely doing things that you would do with film. Maybe those aren’t the right things to do with this new medium. Figuring out the right thing—I think that’s what takes us down the path of realizing as opposed to forecasting the tremendous value in VR. And I’m very optimistic about that value.