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Want to watch YouTube with a VR headset? There's an app for that

Google brings virtual reality further into the mainstream by letting you watch YouTube videos through a VR headset.

YouTube

You think cat videos on YouTube are funny? Wait until you watch them in a virtual reality headset.

Google plans to release in the fall a version of its YouTube app designed for virtual reality, allowing you to strap on a head-mounted display to view both conventional clips and 360-degree videos that let you swivel your head around for a more immersive experience.

YouTube VR will initially be exclusive to Google's new Daydream VR platform, which will work with select Android phones, and there's no word on iPhone, Samsung Gear VR or Oculus Rift compatibility yet. But if you've got a Daydream-ready device, the YouTube app should have all of your saved videos and channel subscriptions right where you left them.

"It's the whole YouTube experience," said YouTube VR product manager Kurt Wilms in an interview at the video streamer's San Bruno, California, headquarters. "All of YouTube, all in VR."

Above: A recent popular example of a 360-degree video. Watch in your phone's YouTube app or the Chrome web browser, and you should be able to click and drag to look all around.

YouTube VR could kickstart broader interest in virtual reality, a burgeoning trend that has captivated the tech industry through its ability to transport people into wholly different digital worlds. The broader commitment by YouTube, the most popular online video site in the world, potentially spurs its millions of viewers to try out VR headsets just as artists begin to experiment with the new medium.

While wearing a VR headset, the videos are front and center in the YouTube VR app, constantly playing even as you use the app's appear-out-of-thin-air menu to select what you want to watch next, Wilms said. You'll also be able to use your voice to search for specific videos instead of tapping out letters on a keyboard, or channel surf by clicking from one video to the next.

youtube-vr-app.png

An early look at the YouTube VR app's interface.

YouTube

With traditional videos, you'll also be able to resize or reposition the screen however you'd like in your own virtual space. "You have your own personal movie theater," Wilms said.

VR apps from Netflix, Hulu and Oculus have gone a step further to create a virtual movie theater experience that surrounds you while you watch. YouTube VR hasn't created anything like that yet, Wilms said. You and your adjustable movie screen will exist in a deep, black void while you're inside the headset. YouTube may decide not to add a theater experience at all: "We've discovered that people get tired of fancy interfaces after a while," Wilms said.

But flat videos won't necessarily be the main attraction. YouTube VR supports a new wave of 360-degree, spherical videos that unfold all around you. The so-called YouTube 360 videos will be specially promoted in the YouTube VR app, including high-res stereo 3D ones filmed with Google's special Jump camera, a collaboration with action camera company GoPro.

Is this just another way to watch video, or is it the future of films? "I can see a world where VR video is the future and everyone's creating video like this," Wilms said, but cautioning that we're still in the early days.

"We're in the flip phone era of VR," says Wilms. "We're not to the iPhone era yet."