Mapping a YouTube Star

AI art won't kill creators — it’ll make a new type of creative: Bilawal Sidhu, Google Maps
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Bilawal Sidhu’s expansive interests have worked in his favour. Before becoming a senior product manager of immersive view and new technology at Google Maps, Sidhu worked as a consultant at Deloitte in their digital business & strategy division. Meanwhile, Sidhu has been actively making creative videos using VFX and 3D animation for the past seven years and has amassed 382K subscribers on YouTube along the way.

Analytics India Magazine caught up with him to chat about the exploding generative AI scene, its future and his cool side projects. 

AIM: It is evident that you are inherently a storyteller. Did YouTube happen before your job at Google or after it? 

Sidhu: Thank you! The computer graphics bug bit me early. At 11, I became obsessed with the magic that Hollywood was pulling off in movies like Terminator 2, Independence Day and The Matrix – using computers to make immersive worlds and characters that looked indistinguishable from reality, and I wanted to learn how to pull off this sorcery.

I was in India at the time, but a 56K modem connected me to the visual effects world to see how it was done! I eventually developed my love for storytelling, and the art and science of visual effects. 

Of course, at that age it meant making Star Wars fan films in my backyard complete with lightsaber battles, X-Wing fighters and explosions for the pre-YouTube era. Funnily enough, top YouTube Creators like Niko and Sam from Corridor Digital and FreddieW were also on these forums, so it’s been awesome to see how much talent was nurtured on this one internet community. 

Unlike Corridor though, I took a detour to focus on academics and build a career in tech so I wouldn’t start taking YouTube seriously again until 2016. Now with 300k+ subscribers on YouTube and 900k+ followers on TikTok, it’s been awesome to revisit and realise that childhood dream. As the saying goes – it’s never too late to get started! 

How I Turned My Passion Into A Career: A 3D Creator’s Journey

AIM: How did you transition from being a consultant to working with immersive technologies?

Sidhu: I built the skillset of a ‘creative technologist’ while at the University of Southern California, where I studied Computer Science & Business Administration. I channelled my passion for VFX tools into UI/UX design and front-end development, and developed an interest in strategic thinking and business intelligence. 

Internet of things (IoT) and mobile apps were all the rage back then and that gave me an opportunity to work on immersive technologies in 2014 while at Deloitte. I worked on enterprise AR projects for field service experts using smart glasses like Google Glass and Epson Moverio. 

As I was cutting my teeth on immersive technologies, the parallels between my childhood passion emerged quickly. If you think about it, AR is effectively running the VFX pipeline in real-time on the phone in your pocket. I knew I wanted to help make immersive media a reality, and that passion eventually led me to join Google, where I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the most talented minds of the industry. 

AIM: What does the future look like with the integration of AR/VR with generative AI?

Sidhu: I believe that generative AI will infuse itself into every part of the AR/VR stack, but I’m most excited about its potential to transform the 3D content creation space.

Example of generative AI used in interior design in AR/VR

The metaverse is a rather empty place without interesting content, and I believe generative AI is crucial to populating the metaverse. If the metaverse is the spatial 3D embodiment of the internet, AR/VR is a spatial way to experience and interact with the so-called metaverse. 

As 2D video creation slowly gets democratised – from YouTube creators wrangling DSLRs, microphones, and editing software to now TikTokers doing the whole creator workflow on their smartphones. These innovations have made video creation far more accessible making the content richer for viewers. 

However, 3D creation remains elusive. A vast majority of 3D content consumed today is made by studios with armies of digital artists – just think of any of the top AAA titles like Fortnite, Call of Duty etc. Generative AI is absolutely going to supercharge that and lower the barriers to 3D creation. 

Finally, I think generative AI will give us a far more direct way to interact with technology in the real and virtual worlds. We’re all raving about AI chatbots these days, but it’s only a matter of time until they’re embodied into AR/VR experiences and understand our spatial context. This will be exciting to watch! 

AIM: How do you see the role of the creator evolving in generative AI? How do you respond to the ethical issues and fears of creators becoming outmoded by AI? 

Sidhu: Such a great question! We discussed this in-depth on an episode of the Creative Technology Podcast. I think ownership and provenance issues will be solved. In many ways we’re at the Limewire and Napster phase of this technology, and the iTunes and Spotify model will emerge.

The role of the creator going forward is a fascinating one. 

I’ve seen several trends in creation evolve – from painstakingly rendering things overnight in 3D tools, to game engines that do it in real-time, to AR/VR bringing it into our everyday lives. New tech certainly supercharges creation for existing mediums, but humans are also very good at conjuring up newer, more complex canvases for our creativity. So, I do believe the consumption mechanisms won’t stay static, and will become more complex such that we couldn’t possibly have created that content without the force multiplier of AI. Maybe that’s the metaverse

In my opinion, AI art won’t kill creators — it’ll make a new type of creative. AI will drastically lower the barrier to high-quality content production, allowing individual creators to rival the output of ENTIRE studios. Meanwhile, studios will set new cinematic standards altogether. Can you imagine what the Marvel Cinematic Universe will do with their treasure trove of visual umami?

AIM: What are your most memorable achievements at Google?

Sidhu: Google is one of the coolest companies on Earth, and I’m excited to have contributed my part to pushing the machine even further. If I had to pick my top 3 they’d be: 

1. Building VR cameras and tools that gave content creators super powers, and produced immersive content that drove billions of hours of watch time on YouTube (including Elton John, Coachella VR, Temple Run VR, Teen Choice Awards and more).

2. Turning the world into a 3D canvas for AR developers – bringing the most ubiquitous location-based AR SDK to market. Getting a credit on the Gorillaz AR takeover of Times Square and Piccadilly Circus was also a nice cherry on top! 

VPS and the ARCore Geospatial API

3. Building Google Maps immersive view, a geospatial 3D experience that represents the union of Google’s understanding of the physical world, and unlocking virtual “vibe checks” so you can figure out what a place is actually like. 

The ability to weave together technologies such as 3D visualization, cloud rendering, real-world simulation, NeRF, and more – all in service of an incredible user experience has been a ton of fun, and is a testament to my incredible colleagues at Google. 

AIM: Since last year, AI seems to be moving at a pace much faster than usual. Does it make you feel anxious or excited?

Sidhu: I’d say a healthy mix of both anxiety and excitement. Especially since this past summer, the pace really picked up and it has become exceedingly difficult to keep up with all the latest and greatest in AI. 

It seems like a conservative estimate to expect innovations to keep dropping every 1-3 months for the next 3 years. The energy is palpable too. It feels a bit like circa 2010 in the early days of the smartphone revolution. Writers will turn photographers will turn videographers. And that’s just scratching the surface. Soon enough, nothing will stand in the way of you turning your creative vision into compelling content. And that is a future I’m stoked for! 

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Poulomi Chatterjee
Poulomi is a Technology Journalist with Analytics India Magazine. Her fascination with tech and eagerness to dive into new areas led her to the dynamic world of AI and data analytics.

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