Clay Bavor wears a Google Cardboard headset in the google woodworking shop in googles hq in mountain view, CA on june 24, 2015.
Clay Bavor, Vice President of Product Management at Google, wears a Google Cardboard headset at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. on June 24, 2015. Gregg Segal for TIME

Exclusive: Google's New Head of Virtual Reality on What They’re Planning Next

Jan 27, 2016

Google is well-known for its April Fools pranks. The first came in 2000 when the company's search page suggested it could read users' minds. (It couldn't.) A few years later, Google told people it would deliver emails on old-fashioned paper through the post office. (It didn't.) And then there was a 2007 plan to build a broadband network using sewage pipes called TiSP, or Toilet Internet Service Provider. (It's not clear how many people dropped a fiber optic cable down their commode to try it out.)

So it was no surprise that when Google announced in June of 2014 that it had built a virtual reality headset almost entirely of cardboard, many people thought it was another of the company's gags—if several months delayed. The project, dubbed Google Cardboard, has been anything but a joke. On Jan. 27, Google will announce that 5 million Cardboard have shipped. More importantly, the company says people are using them: 25 million Cardboard apps have been downloaded from its Play Store, meaning users have tried an average of five different experiences. The most popular app for the device is Chair in a Room, a surprisingly unsettling first-person horror game. But Cardboard apps range from rollercoaster simulators to field trips visits to well-known global monuments.

Cardboard may be the lowest-tech gadget in the history of modern consumer electronics. Its ingredients include a bout half a pizza box worth of cardboard, two magnets, a couple pieces of Velcro, two lenses and a single rubber band. Pop in a smartphone loaded with the right apps, and Cardboard becomes a virtual reality viewer. When you first see a Google Cardboard unit in person, it's hard to believe it can do anything impressive. Then you put it on.

Read more: I finally tried virtual reality and it brought me to tears

In an era of blockbuster Kickstarter campaigns, major partnerships, and multi-billion-dollar acquisitions, Google's recyclable virtual reality viewer may be the most popular "device" for the nascent technology. It would've been easy for Google to mark the win and forget about Cardboard as a stunt, if a highly impactful one. But Google has built on Cardboard's success, adding new features to the device and accompanying software, like better audio. It has fostered a community of developers, crucial for getting fresh content and attracting new users. And it struck high-profile deals to give Cardboard viewers to more people, including one with The New York Times.

At least some of the credit for Cardboard's early success belongs to Googler Clay Bavor, who recently marked his tenth anniversary with the Mountain View, Calif. firm. Bavor has been leading the Cardboard team since close to the beginning, while running the product and design teams responsible for some of Google's most well-known software, like Gmail and Google Docs. Bavor describes Cardboard's early difficulties, such as figuring how to interact with a smartphone that's stuck inside a paper box. Smartphones have so-called magnetometers, which measure the strength and direction of magnetic fields. They're meant to help phones figure out which direction they're pointed in and make features like working compasses possible. So the team added metal magnets to Cardboard's hardware, then created software to interpret shifts in their magnetic field as a user's "click."

"The interesting thing about Cardboard is, the smartphones weren't built for VR," says Bavor. "With the exception of a few, they were all designed and built before Cardboard existed. So there's no thought about how you could optimize a smartphone to make it great not only as a smartphone, but also as the core of a VR device."

Read more: Everything to know about virtual reality

Bavor says he's been obsessed with the idea of making unreal things look realistic since he was a child. That led to interests in photorealism, computer modeling, and virtual reality. When Google recently decided to open a dedicated VR department, Bavor was a natural choice to run it. "I kind of became known inside Google as the VR nerd," he tells TIME in his first interview since being named Google's vice president of virtual reality earlier this month. "When David Coz, who was the engineer from the Paris office, showed up in Mountain View with the first Google Cardboard prototype it wasn't long before someone said, 'Clay needs to see this.'" That Google is putting resources into a new division, even as it seeks to streamline its operations under a wider reorganization, shows the firm wants to take virtual reality—promising but unproven technology—seriously. (Google has also invested in augmented reality startup Magic Leap).

Still, Cardboard only offers an entry-level virtual reality experience. It's likely the least-expensive gateway device to virtual reality. Forthcoming high-end virtual reality headsets from Oculus, Valve, Microsoft and Sony will cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the computers needed to make them run. They will, for the price, offer much more immersive experiences. Samsung sells its Gear VR for $99, but it only works with that company's line of phones. Worldwide sales of virtual reality gear are expected to rise to nearly $16 billion annually by 2020, estimates researcher Markets and Markets.

Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.
VIEW GALLERY | 20 PHOTOS
1988 Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.
"Reality +" at the Virtual Reality Systems 93 show was described as a next generation, multi-player virtual reality entertainment system that gave a high sense of movement in a computer-generated world revealed in a head-mounted display.
The 3-player Budweiser virtual reality mask at the Food Marketing Institute's International Supermarket Industry Convention and Educational Expostion in Chicago.
A Virtual Reality contraption at the Sci Fi Channel booth at The National Cable Television Association annual convention, in San Francisco.
Soldier training using a virtual reality-simulated 3-D shootout at an Army facility.
A visitor checking out a virtual reality head-set at the G7 Information Society Showcase taking place at the European Parliament. The head-set was linked to a camera elsewhere in the building which the visitor could control through head movements.
A researcher at Tokyo University's Intelligent Modeling Laboratory wearing 3-D glasses, extending his hands to touch carbon atoms in the microscopic world at the laboratory's virtual reality room.
Visitors enjoy virtual reality driving with 3-D goggles and driving simulators for the presentation of Japan's automaker Nissan at the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo.
A visitor to the " Ars Electronica in a dish installation " Humphrey II" , which allowed virtual free flight through a 3D reconstruction of the city of Linz.
A girl wore a full color head mounted display with a built-in camera as Japan's machinery maker Hitachi Zosen and Shimadzu unveiled a wearable computer, consisting of the HMD and a palm sized Windows XP PC with a pointing device at a virtual reality exhibition in Tokyo.
Lt. David Shipley of the Adams County Sheriff's Department watched an interactive video that replicated the experiences of a schizophrenic patient having auditory and visual hallucinations while attempting to refill a prescription at a pharmacy.
Valeria Petkova, right, and student Andrew Ketterer, left, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, tested the 'body-swap' illusion, a method whereby people can experience the illusion that either a mannequin or another person's body is their own body.
Raphael Pirker from Switzerland, founder of Team BlackSheep used virtual reality goggles to simulate the sensation of flight in the real world during a demonstration, flying from the perspective of a model aircraft, during a session of LeWeb'12 in Saint-Denis, near Paris.
A man seeking a job was equipped with 3D spectacles with sensors as he trained in Clermont-Ferrand, central France with avatars (background) in a virtual reality cube, at business incubator Pascalis.
Peter Kenny Jan Torpus, director of Lifeclipper project, tested the immersive augmented reality equipment in St Johanns Park in Basel, Switzerland.
Professor Karl Oldhafer, chief physician of general and visceral surgery at the Asklepios Hospital Hamburg-Barmbek, before liver surgery. Oldhafer used augmented reality, which allowed the liver to be filmed with an iPad and overlaid during the operation with virtual 3D models reconstructed from the real organ. This procedure helped locate critical structures such as tumors and vessels and was expected to improve the quality of transferring pre-operational resection plans into actual surgery.
British television presenter Rachel Riley showed a virtual-reality headset called Gear VR during a Samsung event ahead of the consumer electronic fair IFA in Berlin.
Tim Draper, Founder and Managing partner of 'Draper Fisher Jurvetson', tried out the latest in virtual reality technology the 2014 Kairos Global Summit at Ritz-Carlton Laguna Nigel in Dana Point, California.
A man played a game with the virtual reality head-mounted display 'Oculus Rift' at International Games Week in Berlin. The display transfers the eye movements to the game in real time.
Microsoft's Lorraine Bardeen demonstrates HoloLens headset during an event at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. on Jan. 21, 2015.
1988 Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back inform
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Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
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Is Google working on higher-end VR hardware? Bavor won't say exactly. "The amazing thing about Cardboard is that it's truly VR for everyone with a smartphone," he says. "We think there's something powerful and important in that. Is that the end of the line? Of course it's not the end of the line. I think if you imagine the types of things that a company with the ambition and the technical resources and the know-how of Google would be working on, we're working on a lot of those things."

Ultimately, Bavor says Google's goal is putting virtual reality in the hands of as many people as possible. Or as he puts it, "VR is too important and too powerful a medium to be accessible to only a few."

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