About a year ago, YouTube made a quiet upgrade - it began to support 3D content. But the even neater thing? The work was essentially that of one employee who worked on the project in his spare "20 per cent" time.
It's just so Google, isn't it? Pete Bradshaw, YouTube software engineer, playing around in 3D in his allotted dabbling time, sparks an update in the world's most popular video sharing service.
You may not have even noticed the YouTube was supporting 3D - frankly, before this interview, I had no idea either. But from red and blue anaglyph to eyes-crossing Magic-Eye-style, the service now supports the uploading of stereoscopic footage (two video streams) that it will mix, in real time, right within your browser in a manner of the viewer's choosing.
I chatted with Pete, along with spokesman Chris Dale, about how YouTube 3D came about and where YouTube will take 3D into the future.
Why did you begin the project?
Pete: The germ of the idea came about with the Superbowl a couple of years ago when there was a promotion with Monsters vs Aliens, and they were giving away red and blue glasses out in the supermarkets. And I got those glasses since they were supposed to work with YouTube.
So I went digging for 3D content on the site. And there was a lot, but the issue was that sometimes it was mixed with different colours (because you can get different coloured glasses). There's red/green and yellow/blue and all these other things. So if you were uploading 3D video, you basically planned for one specific kind of glasses you wanted to support. If you didn't have just the right pair, you were out of luck.
And so we were just kind of sitting around talking about this, and we came up with the idea that, well, we could mix the left and right views inside the player and give an experience that works on any of the different-coloured 3D glasses.
This just started as like a random lunch discussion, and afterward, I hacked up a simple little demo that worked on its own machine. I showed it to a few people and they were very surprised. They were like, "We should launch it! When does it launch?"
And so 3D was integrated into the player in a way users could actually use. The shooter uploads two videos side by side, and then we do the mix in the player. Then the viewer tells us the colour of their glasses, or if they'd rather do some of the crazy, cross eyed things. (We actually added some support for a few more display systems after launch.)
How long was it between the germ of the idea and actually having something running and actually launching?
Pete: From the first demo, I probably spent three weeks of actual work - not all of it continuous because, given my background, I'm more on the backend server side of stuff here at YouTube than the player side. So there was a bit of a learning curve for me coming into that, meaning I grabbed people at lunch, asking them, "Hey, how did you guys build this stuff?"
It seems like Nvidia is making a huge push with all their shutter glasses. Do you guys think that shutter is the next big step?
Pete: Well I don't know if you saw the demo at CES where Nvidia had their big 3D press event - at the end of it, they worked with Adobe and us to actually get the shot of us working with YouTube to get a YouTube video to play with the shutter glasses, and it just works.
It's not actually launched yet, but most of the hard work is on their side, and getting Adobe to talk to the shutter people. But once that's done, it's definitely something we are interested in supporting.
Do you really see 3D glasses taking off?
Pete: I definitely think 3D is coming, and it's going to be a standard feature. But adoption rates and exact technologies, if I knew that stuff, I would be investing.
YouTube can be difficult enough to run in HD. It feel like by adding 3D, you're basically doubling the information were you to compete with, say, 60fps Blu-ray 3D.
Pete: I take the point that it is a heavier burden for the machine to show. We've got some player changes to come and plans that will help with that, but there's also a lot of interest from Adobe and also HTML5 guys in making this kind of stuff work.
Chris: Occasionally people say, "god, how do you guy support the infrastructure cost and this other kind of stuff?" I don't think it's really something we worry about too much, but as far as 3D, I think it really depends on the users computer to a great degree in like computing power catching up to where video is evolving to.
What's the endgame of where you're going with this in terms of this 3D adoption?
Pete: It's been used a lot from the start, but I'm not sure where it's going because users have done all sorts of crazy stuff - like there was the craze where people were getting a bunch of LEDs and doing long exposures. There were also a lot of videos with those Fuji FinePix REAL 3D W1 cameras, along with a lot of users just uploading random stuff with that.
It's kind of fun with because a lot of the current stuff is more YouTube-y. Instead of being this blockbuster or some guy working a CGI animation, it's just like, "hey, here is my garden", as some guy in Japan films his garden in 3D.
Another thing that happened that was just a complete surprise - these guys were using the stereo video technology for surgery - a kind of keyhole surgery. And until now, one surgeon would perform a procedure with a stereo microscope, and all the students just watched the back of this guy's head. Now, they've got all the cameras and the HD video. We just have one super short, 30-second clip of brain surgery, and it's kind of gross... but it's great.
Is it right to say you guys aren't really trying to know where this is going other just kind of saying that we're going to support 3D? Like we don't know where exactly this is going to go, how the camera and stuff are going to work out but YouTube is going to support it.
Pete: We do think about it and maintain an interest, but every time we do the users have started doing something crazy and different. I actually remember one interesting example at the launch was a guy whose doing his pHD in some kind of visualisation and he started asking these great questions about how we are actually mixing them together. Even after the feature has launched now there is still a feed back loop by users, coming to us about it and shoot us some ideas we could improve.
Chris: We also have content partners with many of the major Hollywood studios, television networks and content creators around the world. A lot of them have seen this, and they want to tackle it and they want to think of ways of showcasing their movie trailers in 3D. We've even been asking, could we even live stream something in 3D?
However, I can't get into specifics about what movie studios or what trailers you could conceivably see.
What portion of YouTube uploaders are really doing stuff with 3D?
Chris: It could be probably be pretty small, I mean we're talking - we have thousands of 3D videos on the site, but we have 24 hours of video uploaded every minute.
So it's essentially thousands vs countless.
Chris: Exactly. I think, it is still very small but it's growing and it's growing fast. Like when we first did mobile uploads, they started to trickle in, but when the iPhone 3GS came out, it grew by, I think 500 per cent in the weeks following the 3Gs release. Over the course of 2009 mobile uploads were up by 2000 per cent.
When you get into the nitty gritty of stereoscopic technology, once you know how to make an image 3D and you learn to do it with a moderate level of compression, it should translate across Google services. And it feels like Picasa would be a perfect sort candidate to be in 3D. Is there any interest taking this beyond video at this point? Or just, no, is it just completely an entertainment thing. You would never see this in UI, in other services.
Chris: One of the things we've both learned at YouTube is that never say never, and the truth is that the cross-pollination across different Google services and properties have accelerated significantly over the last year... We are really in the amazing stage of 3D right now and I think you can expect more cool things from a lot of different companies including Google when it comes to 3D.