This week, Google announced that it would be opening a new division dedicated to virtual reality computing, which will see the tech giant’s former VP for product management, Clay Bavor, move from overseeing Google’s apps to becoming the VP of Virtual Reality. The move has many commentators stating that Google has been behind on VR and is attempting to catch up Microsoft, who will be shipping out the Hololens this quarter, and Facebook, shipping the Oculus Rift with a $599 price tag. Though the company has not yet announced plans for a dedicated VR headset, it’s hard for me to agree with these journalists’ argument that Google is catching up when the Project Tango AR platform was released as a developer’s kit last year and Cardboard has played a huge role in kickstarting this VR wave in the first place.
Bavor will be leaving behind his legacy of Gmail and Google Drive to oversee the VR department, having been the manager of the Google Cardboard project in 2014. Thanks to these $2 headsets, anyone with a smartphone (approaching 2 billion people this year) have been able to experience a rudimentary form of VR. So, while Facebook has developed an in-house production studio for its Oculus content, Google has been ahead of the curve, allowing 3D and 360 videos to be displayed on YouTube since May of last year. This really makes Google the first company to have launched a VR headset, and the most affordable one at that. Before Oculus, Sony, and HTC can even get theirs out the door, huge companies like the New York Times are able to produce consumer-focused VR content that just about anyone can access right now.
The proof that Google is already planning on conquering the space may be a combination of the upcoming release of Project Tango and new features they plan to add to Cardboard. Project Tango has the potential to disrupt about everything, as Lenovo brings this 3D sensing smartphone to the market this summer. With a price of under $500, ordinary consumers will be able to 3D scan the world around them. More than that, they will be able to use AR apps that register the world around them to blend the digital and physical environments. By slipping Tango into a hypothetical, upgraded Cardboard headset, this can be turned into an actual VR system that even improves upon the Oculus with environmental awareness and mobility.
A sign that Google will be improving Cardboard for just such a scenario is this week’s news that they will be adding spatial sound to the low-cost VR device. Just as the visual world will be in 3D, the new SDK from Google will allow programmers to give depth to sound, so that virtual traffic will pass from the left to right ear or creepy footsteps might sound as though its approaching from behind. It’s not difficult to imagine, then, that, by the end of the year, Google will have a premium Cardboard device that is able to isolate users for an immersive VR experience using the upcoming Project Tango smartphone. And, by the time that Magic Leap, in which Google has invested significant funds, is ready for the public, perhaps this VR experience will be projected directly into the eyes of its users.
So, there should be no doubt that Google does not have a “fear of missing out” that other writers might suggest. They should be considered the ones creating that fear. Now, we just have to wait for Apple to make a big announcement with the iPhone 7 that will blow everyone else out of the water…