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Google Teams Up With GoPro for VR, Updates Cardboard Viewer

Want to experience virtual reality, Google-style? Then get out the scissors: Google’s plans for VR are still very much in a do-it-yourself spirit, despite a new partnership with GoPro that will make a VR camera rig available to anyone with enough money to buy 16 of the popular action cams.

At its I/O developer conference, Google introduced the second generation of its Cardboard VR viewerCardboard is essentially a brown cardboard box that includes cheap plastic lenses, a single magnetic button. There’s also a slot to insert one’s own smartphone as the display,  just like its predecessor, which was first unveiled at last year’s I/O conference.

The 2015 edition of Cardboard is slightly larger that last year’s version to accommodate ever-growing phones, and also now works with Apple’s iPhone. Google gave away viewers to the audience of the I/O conference, and is offering enthusiasts instructions to build their own viewer online. Anyone not as crafty can opt to buy a cardboard-compatible viewer from a Google partner for around $25 instead.

“There is something really special about it being so accessible, so easy,” said Google cardboard VP of product management Clay Bavor during an interview at the sidelines of the event.

Google’s Jump VR camera rig, complete with 16 GoPro cameras.

Google is taking the same DIY-friendly approach for Jump, a new camera rig it developed for filmmakers to shoot 360-degree footage. The specs for Jump will also be made available freely online, available for anyone to take and improve upon. And to jumpstart the creation process, Google struck a partnership with GoPro, which will sell the rig, complete with 16 GoPro cameras, some time in the coming months. There’s no word on pricing yet, but the 16 cameras alone should set you back at least $3000.

“This is not a mass market consumer product,” admitted Bavor, adding that the target audience of Jump are for now professional videographers, and serious VR enthusiasts.

The Jump rig is only part of the puzzle for Google. The company has also been developing a cloud-based production environment to turn footage from those 16 cameras into a coherent 360-degree video, with smooth stitching that makes you forget it was recorded with multiple cameras. Users will be able to upload their footage, and then have Google’s Jump assembler combine it to a video ready for a VR viewer.

Speaking of which: Google has seen more than one million downloads of its Cardboard demo app, but the company is now looking for an even bigger audience by also making 360-degree videos available on YouTube. Users of the video site can either immerse themselves in these videos with a Cardboard viewer, or watch them in what Bavor called the “magic window mode,” which involves physically moving the phone to explore the space of a spherical video.

Some of the first examples shown off by YouTube include extreme sports GoPro footage, 360-degree music videos and even a selection of horror short films. Separately, YouTube also started to show some of Google’s spherical Spotlight Stories, and the Google-owned video site has plans to add 3-D VR content in the near future.

Bavor told me that the Cardboard team isn’t just using YouTube because of its huge worldwide audience, but also for technical expertise. Making 360-degree videos is still pretty complicated, but streaming it to the end user is actually pretty challenging as well, in part because a video that allows users to freely explore a space in 3-D is a lot larger than a simple video clip. “It’s a lot more data,” Bavor said.

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