YouTube’s new engineering chief talks about promise of virtual reality

YouTube has grown into an online video empire. In his first interview as the site’s engineering chief, Matthew Mengerink discusses virtual reality, making money and stepping into the role during trying times for YouTube’s engineers.

Soon after Matthew Mengerink became YouTube’s engineering chief a few weeks ago, he got a taste of some of the virtual reality footage Google has been working on but hasn’t yet released to the public.

“I saw stuff that just melted my brain,” Mengerink said Tuesday in his first interview since joining the Google-owned video site.

He won’t go into detail about what he saw but gives general examples of the kinds of things VR can do, like taking you cycling through the Alps while you’re really just on your exercise bike. Or letting you stomp around the city pretending to be Godzilla.

The world’s top tech companies, from Facebook to Samsung, have become enamored with virtual reality. Once mostly the dream of video game makers, Silicon Valley has expanded the vision for the technology, an industry worth an estimated $7 billion.

“That’s the future technology of YouTube,” said Mengerink. “Those are the table stakes: How do you change the way people look at things?”

It’s probably not exactly the way the one billion people who visit the site every month think of YouTube. The juggernaut video service, which Google acquired in 2006, is known for its massive haul of cat videos, sports rants and makeup tutorials. But all of that is evolving as the site expands and becomes more ambitious.

On Wednesday, Google is launching YouTube Red, a subscription version of the service that nixes the ads and gives you access to original shows and movies from top YouTube talent for $10 a month. In August, Google launched YouTube Gaming, a hub dedicated to video game-related content. Google, which recently restructured as a holding company, also plans to place the streaming media site at the heart of its virtual reality efforts.

It’s not obvious, but Mengerink, a 43-year-old veteran of eBay and PayPal, said his background makes him well-suited for the top engineering job at YouTube. After all, a career at e-commerce companies doesn’t automatically make you the right person to make sure people’s video streams don’t buffer incessantly.

As YouTube grows and looks for more ways to make money, Mengerink said there are similarities in maintaining sites like eBay and YouTube. eBay has various levels of sellers, from one-off dealers to mom and pop shops, as well as buyers. YouTube has viral video-seekers, along with casual video uploaders and creators who want to make money.

“We need to make sure that monetization doesn’t interfere with the joy of watching videos,” he said. “That’s a hard balance to strike.”

mengerin.pngMengerink’s challenges aren’t only technical. He steps into the role after YouTube’s previous engineering chief, Venkat Panchapakesan, died in March. In the interim, engineering executive John Harding had taken on a leadership role. The move to bring in an outsider was controversial to some YouTube employees, according to a report by The Information.

“If I were in their shoes, I would find this very jarring,” Mengerink said. “This is a particularly trying time for the organization. I think there’s a bit of skepticism, and rightfully so.”

“Humbly speaking, it’s upon me to prove myself to everyone here,” he said. He added that Harding told him he’s “committed to the long-term.”

For Google, YouTube has become a crucial part of the company. When the search giant announced quarterly results last week, a big part of Google’s success was the “amazing momentum” of YouTube, said Google CEO Sundar Pichai. There has been an uptick in mobile advertising, and people are spending 60 percent more time watching videos on the site than they did a year ago. Meanwhile, competitors like Facebook and Amazon’s Twitch, aimed a video gamers, have become more aggressive in going to battle with YouTube.

As for virtual reality, Google last year unveiled Cardboard, a no-frills kit made of, well, cardboard that turns your smartphone into a VR headset. In May, the company said people would be able to directly watch VR videos on Cardboard through YouTube. All you will need to do is choose the VR function from the YouTube smartphone app.

“As virtual reality comes into being, how do we make sure people experience it on YouTube first?” said Mengerink. “This is the first inning of a nine inning game.”

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