Jon Wiley, the lead designer of Google Search, has transitioned to become lead designer of Google Cardboard—the sub-$10 cardboard and plastic case that can transform a smartphone into a low-end, 3-D, virtual reality headset.
Wiley's Twitter profile reflects his new position, and Google confirmed the move, but declined to share details as to when or why it occurred, or who will replace Wiley in his former role. What's clear is that Google has invested a major design talent in VR. As head of Search, Wiley refined the mobile experience, while turning long lists of links simple cards of information.
When Google Cardboard launched a year ago, many interpreted it as a promotional gimmick, incapable of competing with higher tech competitors. But the platform may turn out to have legs. Sure, it's essentially a Viewmaster made of paper. It’s also the most democratic virtual reality headset we’ve seen yet. Over half a million units have shipped, likely because it's a mere 2% to 3% of the price of its closest competitor, the Samsung Gear VR (also a headset adapter that slots in a smartphone), which runs $250.
And who better to run the world’s most democratic VR platform than the designer of Google’s most democratic product, search? Everyone’s grandma knows how to Google something, yet under Wiley, Google Search has continued to remove tiny points of friction standing between a user and his data. Under Wiley, Google added cards that pulled relevant information straight out of search results. As he put it to me last year, "Google is very well known for its strong computer science, algorithms, and all the things we do in terms of solving really big hard-to-scale problems. [But] I don’t think quite as much attention has been paid to the other side of Google. We’re really focused on making simple and useful experiences—but also beautiful experiences."
VR desperately needs those "simple and useful" experiences. As of today, VR hardware like Oculus Rift is a technological wonder, with high-resolution screens that fire pixels, coordinated with your head movements, to feel real. But how do you walk around in a VR game? How do you touch a VR button? What does a menu or file system look like in an immersive, 3-D environment?
"People are trying to invent the display part, and they’re not yet worrying properly about the UI," John Underkoffler, creator of the famous Minority Report interface, explained in a recent interview, citing a general lack of urgency across the industry. "No one has a UI for it. So that puts VR pretty much in the position of being a playback mechanism." In other words, without UI, virtual reality is just going to be a very nice way to watch a relatively typical movie. Users need a whole new language to really interact with it.
Here's hoping Google Cardboard tasks Wiley with scripting that future.