Innovation

What Google could be planning for virtual reality at this year's I/O conference

This year's Google I/O conference could hold the next steps in Google's virtual reality plans. Here's what to expect.

Two years ago at I/O, Google revealed Cardboard to the world. Initially, no one was quite sure what to do with the foldable piece of cardboard that purported to deliver virtual reality for cheap. The next year, they showed off Cardboard 2.0, a simplified version, a revamped SDK, and Jump—a tool for capturing VR comprised of a camera, assembler, and player. The player was, of course, Youtube.

This year we're once again expecting steps forward in the virtual reality space from Google.

Back in February, the Financial Times reported that Google has been working on a new headset with sensors, possibly made of a more durable material. And further, the buzz was that it could be a standalone headset that would require neither a smartphone nor a PC to run. While that would be an interesting turn of events, and certainly an appealing idea in a market where every headset requires some other type of expensive computing power, analysts aren't expecting it. With the exception of the Microsoft HoloLens, there's nothing else that's standalone.

Earlier in the week, Android Police wrote about Android VR, a rumored platform that could be announced alongside a headset.

Android VR wouldn't be an unexpected move for Google, which is known for augmenting the Android OS to speak to new trends in tech. We saw this with Android Wear and the simpler version of the OS for smartwatches, and Google has even gone as far as to break out the Android kernel for use in IoT through Brillo and Weave.

Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder isn't expecting a standalone headset, but rather something akin to the Samsung Gear VR, but instead tapping into the Google ecosystem.

"Since Android phones are plentiful, it makes sense for Google to try to extend their functionality into VR—but it's not a straightforward exercise; Samsung worked hard to create a seamless solution, even increasing the resolution of the S7 phones to maximize the experience," he said.

This could be a solid move for Google making a play at the mid-range, phone-based VR market, Gownder said.

Beyond hardware, Gartner analyst Brian Blau pointed out that there have been several smaller announcements in the past several months, signalling a more significant announcement this week. Even Monday, Google announced Youtube 360 support for iOS.

Google is a platform company, Blau said, which supports the idea of the introduction of a bigger, more formal platform supporting VR.

A platform announcement could also widen the scope of the announcements, maybe even dipping into augmented reality.

"That would mean new VR HMDs, updates to Google Cardboard — or some combination — and better integration of all of their immersive technology into a more cohesive package that developers can then take and treat it as a more cohesive platform and ecosystem, and one on which they can build future apps and extensions," Blau said.

The Google I/O keynote will be May 18 at 10 a.m. PT, with a VR session streaming May 19 at 9 a.m. PT.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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