YouTube’s Plans for Virtual Reality: A Dedicated App, Content Partnerships and 360-Degree Video Ads

YouTube VR app
Courtesy of YouTube

As Google is working on the future of virtual reality, YouTube is along for the ride. The Google-owned video site announced plans for its own virtual reality app Thursday, which will be available on Daydream-powered mobile VR devices once they become available later this year.

But YouTube’s plans for VR don’t stop there. The site has also been busy hooking up some of its content partners with VR cameras to get them to produce immersive 360-degree video content, and is already thinking about ways to eventually monetize this content as well.

Google announced  at its Google I/O developer conference in Mountain View, California Wednesday that it is building a dedicated VR platform for Android phones dubbed Daydream. Later this year, a number of phone manufacturers are going to release Daydream-ready devices.

Inserted into special Daydream headsets and combined with a Daydream controller, they will allow users to play games and view experiences built for VR through a dedicated app launcher. One of those apps will be a VR version of YouTube, which will offer access to 360-degree videos as well as any other video available on YouTube today.

In fact, the app will work in may ways like YouTube on mobile or on a smart TV, explained YouTube VR product manager Kurt Wilms in an interview with Variety. “It’s all of YouTube,” he said. Users will be able to sign in and access their subscriptions and favorites, and the app will serve them personalized recommendations based on their viewing history.

The app will put a special highlight on 360-degree content, but Wilms said that his team fully expects consumers to watch a lot of regular 2D videos as well. “If people like a creator, they will watch it anywhere,” he said.

Wilms said that his team is still working out some of the details on the final app, but the idea is to make it as easy as possible for the users to navigate YouTube’s entire catalog without having to turn their heads or intensely gaze on virtual controls. That’s why the app makes extensive use of the Daydream controller, and is also going to incorporate voice search. “You want people to put on the viewer and have a long session,” he said.

In the future, YouTube also plans to offer more interactive VR video experiences on its platform that will give viewers the ability to unlock bits and pieces within a video and go beyond a simple linear narrative. YouTube first experimented with this when it brought Google’s Spotlight Stories to its platform, and Wilms said that these features will eventually trickle down to other content creators as well. “We are continuing to push the boundaries of immersive storytelling,” he said.

In anticipation of the VR app launch, YouTube has also been working on the content front to beef up its 360-degree video catalog. The number of 360-degree videos uploaded to the site are already doubling every three months, but now, YouTube is looking to help some of its media partners produce high-quality VR-ready content.

To that effect, Google has been sharing some of the Odyssey 360-degree video cameras it has developed with GoPro with partners like BuzzFeed, Tastemade and the NBA, which will use it to produce 360-videos for basketball fans. “May of these fans around the world will never go to a game,” said YouTube Creators director Jamie Byrne. With VR, they could nonetheless go court-side.

Byrne characterized these partnerships with creators as a learning phase, and said that YouTube isn’t yet focused on monetization. However, he made it clear that YouTube is definitely thinking about ads as a way to make money with VR videos. “Ads are going be an important part of the VR monetization landscape,” he said, adding that advertisers like BMW have already been trying out 360-degree videos on YouTube’s home page. “A lot of our advertisers are already experimenting with it.”

And once YouTube starts to monetize VR in earnest, one also shouldn’t be too surprised to see it come to other headsets in addition to Google’s Daydream platform. Byrne didn’t want to commit to bringing YouTube VR to the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headsets Thursday, but he did say that his team has been building the app “from the ground up,” which is suggesting that it may be an experience that could find its way to other headsets in the future as well.