Google became one of the first companies to bring VR to the masses when it introduced Google Cardboard at the 2014 I/O conference in San Francisco. Now, the company is opening an entire division dedicated to VR.
As initially reported by Re/code, Google is launching a division focused solely on VR to be run by product manager Clay Bavor, who previously looked over many of Google’s core apps in addition to Cardboard. Senior vice president Diane Greene is said to be taking over the core apps from Bavor.
If this year’s CES is any indication, there’s obvious buzz building heavily around VR and AR. But the natural questions about Google going deeper in the space are what does the company hope to accomplish and how are they going to pursue it?
For starters, VR as a content-delivery platform means that it carries the potential as another vehicle for advertising revenue–Google’s core business. Google has already taken steps to help users create more VR content, such as making YouTube more VR friendly, and announcing its Jump platform for capturing VR video.
Of course, there are also a plethora of potential enterprise use cases for VR and AR, especially in fields like healthcare and real estate, and for activities such as training and marketing. Google could better position itself as a trusted enterprise partner with offerings in these areas.
At this point, it’s far too early to tell what Google’s ultimate foray into VR will look like. Many have predicted that Google could be developing a competitive product to Facebook’s Oculus Rift (especially if ad revenue is at stake) or Microsoft Hololens. However, both of those scenarios are unlikely since they are high-end products.
Google’s relationship with hardware has, historically, been dodgy to say the least; they typically haven’t targeted the high-end of the market. With Oculus finally entering the consumer market at a staggering $600 price point, it’s pretty clear that the high-end HMD market will be fairly exclusive, at least in the early days.
There’s also the spectre that Google leaders could be wary of repeating the struggles they experienced with Google Glass–although don’t forget that it relaunched as Project Aura last fall, with an enterprise focus.
When Google first introduced Cardboard, a lot of people thought it was a joke. It was, after all, a VR headset that looked like it was pieced together with scraps from a pizza delivery box. After Google continued to launch developer tools and a certification process, it was pretty clear that Google had a plan for the project.
When Cardboard made its debut in the summer of 2014, VR and AR were still novel technologies and it was difficult to determine where developers might go with it. By providing a cheap, entry-level product and getting it in the hands of a lot of people, Google was doing what it does best with new tech–seeding the market with it and seeing what the developers come up with.
Now, there are a ton of new companies making their own version of Cardboard, and host of apps that take advantage of the form factor (although many are available for other VR platforms), and the result is a low-end VR experience that has been democratised.
In early 2015, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) sent its own version of Cardboard to potential students to give them a 3D campus tour. Around the same time, Google announced its Expeditions program that gives students virtual field trips using Cardboard.
Later in 2015, The New York Times launched its own VR initiative that uses Google Cardboard and mailed out Cardboard headsets to 1.3 million subscribers that get the Sunday paper. And, just a few days before the publication of this article, doctors used Cardboard to save a baby’s life by mapping out a nearly-impossible procedure.
When it comes other players in the HMD market, though, companies such as AuraVisor have already been building HMDs using Android-powered hardware. This presents another opportunity for Google to potentially develop a VR OS that could be licensed to third-party HMD manufacturers as well.
From that perspective, it appears Google’s new VR division is more likely to develop an Android-based VR platform and/or simply release an enhanced version of Cardboard that is similar to the ViewMaster VR ($30) or the Samsung Gear VR (now $100, with extra sensors to enhance the experience).
Smartphones are the primary internet-connected device for many worldwide, and Google has a massive opportunity with Cardboard to define the VR market and help create virtual experiences for the masses. The fact that the company is launching a division dedicated to VR confirms that they’re going for it.