YouTube needs a better VR presence

I routinely access YouTube on my phone and tablet and I Chromecast it to my TV. Less often, but still periodically, I pull on my VR goggles and watch YouTube in 360°. I do this with Gear VR, PSVR, and Cardboard headsets. Of those three YouTube is best viewed on Cardboard. Maybe I’m being naïve, since I know that Google owns both YouTube and Cardboard, but I really expect the better headsets to deliver the better experience.

Gear VR doesn’t have a native YouTube app. To access the site you literally need to do it through a web browser in virtual reality. That said, it’s a pretty good experience. There are plenty of options for how to display content, allowing video to be seen flat in front of you, wrapped around you in 360°, or even left eye and right eye stacked one above the other. There are also all the same controls that you find on YouTube’s PC pages, so you can choose the resolution and caption options. The big drawback in my book is that I can’t log in to YouTube through this browser window. Okay, I can, but with Google Authenticator installed on the phone that is currently in the headset I have no simple means of dealing with two-factor authentication – so I really can’t. All of those 360° videos that I’ve saved to watch later? I need to search for them. It’s double frustrating because my phone has a short timer on it before it overheats in my headset. Losing time to search for things that would be swiftly found if I were logged in is irksome and prevents me from watching YouTube in my Gear VR as often as I’d like.

PlayStation’s YouTube app has a normal and a VR mode

PlayStation has a native YouTube app and it has a PSVR mode. For the most part it’s a good experience, but it frequently stumbles with buffering 360° videos so they start off in (nearly unwatchable) low-res and improve as the video progresses. I have fast and reliable internet at home. Generally I have no trouble watching YouTube on my devices. Watching it in my Gear VR on my home WiFi is quite doable. Watching it in my PSVR on my home WiFi is quite dismal. What’s missing is the option to select which resolution I want to employ. I can watch all the flat content I want through my PSVR goggles, but as soon as I choose 360 content I have to suffer through buffer.

The Cardboard experience is the best of the three. Its main drawback is that I need to touch the screen to use it (smudges!) and/or I need to start the video before getting the headset to my eyes. These are either faults of my Cardboard headset or necessary situations so I don’t side eye Google too hard for this one. What would improve things is if you hit Play on a video and you had a short timer, say three seconds, to get the headset to your eyes before the video started. Ditto having a timer between videos when Auto-Play is enabled, as a moment to pull the headset away and cease watching videos.

YouTube VR as seen in a Daydream headset

I realize that Google is a competitor to Oculus and, in a much smaller part, to PlayStation so my comparison here will be faulty but I think when it comes to YouTube they need to be more like Netflix: put the app everywhere and make it as awesome as possible everywhere. I watch hours of YouTube every week. I really want to watch hours of 360 content on YouTube every week too. Instead I do most of my 360 viewing on my phone screen using my finger to look around. This is entirely because of insufficient app development. I much prefer to watch 360 from under the goggles and I hope Google provides a better means.