Just as Android came to dominate smartphones, Google wants to take the next big tech platform mainstream: virtual reality. To do this it has launched a new $79 headset together with a new VR system, making both open to developers and hardware manufacturers.
It is a move right out of the Google playbook, but unlike the success it has had with Android in the smartphone market, there is no guarantee that VR will ever become a mainstream technology, and even if it does, Google is already playing catch up.
For the last 30 years, virtual reality has been hailed as the future of computing and entertainment. As early as the 1980s, VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, the man credited with popularizing the term, was selling a virtual reality headset and gloves. Since then, a lot of people have attempted to solve the VR puzzle, but until recently the high cost of hardware meant it never had a chance of going mainstream.
Then the smartphone came along, and so companies like Samsung saw an opportunity to create a low-cost VR experience by using the processing power and display technology we already carry around in our pockets.
Samsung launched the Gear VR headset last year in partnership with Facebook’s Oculus, makers of the high-end Rift VR headset which works with your PC. Samsung has already had significant success with the $100 Gear VR headset, one million people used Gear VR during the month of April.
Now Google comes to the market, with a two-pronged plan to disrupt Samsung, which is already reeling from the recall of its exploding Galaxy Note 7 smartphones. The first part began last Thursday with the launch of the Daydream app and the $79 Daydream View headset, built by Google and designed to work with the company’s new Pixel smartphones — as well as smartphones from any other manufacturer who want to support it.
The problem for Google is that it may already be too late.
“Samsung is the de facto Android VR platform right now, just as Samsung is the de facto Android smartphone vendor today,” Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research told VICE News. “Daydream is really a VR platform for Android vendors not named Samsung, and that is the biggest challenge here.”
There are four main challenges facing Google if it wants to make VR a mainstream technology:
Content. As Google’s head of VR, Clay Bavor, points out, there’s a chicken and egg problem with virtual reality today. “In order to motivate developers to make good stuff — and good stuff by the way cost money to make — you need users to sell that stuff to,” Bavor told the Code Mobile conference recently. “For a lot of people to buy into a VR headset, there has got to be neat stuff to do, there has got to be value in the experience.”
Google envisions a world where developers, manufacturers and ultimately customers will flock to its vision of VR. But Google is currently offering just a handful of games and apps. There is no killer content to make people come back again and again.
Competition. With Android, Google controls the software of 87 percent of the world’s smartphones, but with VR, it is up against a wide range of competitors.
At one end of the market devices like the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive attract those who want to use VR for gaming and Daydream’s Bluetooth controller is just not going to be good enough.
At the mobile end of the market Samsung is the big challenger, with a partnership with Oculus and its own app store with a lot more content. That could change of course, given Google’s resources and relationships with creators. There are also dozens of budget VR headsets available on Amazon for a fraction of the price of Google’s own headset with the same core functionality.
Comfort. Google’s designed the Daydream using lightweight, breathable material, in an attempt to make it comfortable to wear. The problem is, it’s not very comfortable to wear. This is not limited to Google’s new VR headset, it is an issue with most headsets, particularly ones designed to work with mobile phones.
This becomes a particular issue considering Bavor said that watching video is one of the big potential appeals of VR. Despite the promise of new Netflix and HBO apps in the coming weeks, the idea of spending two hours watching a film in VR sounds like torture.
Backing the wrong horse. Google is focusing on VR with Daydream, when increasingly it is augmented reality, or AR, which is all around us. Google itself is a big investor in AR, leading a massive funding round for the top secret Florida-based Magic Leap, which is working on an augmented reality headset which those who have tried it claim it revolutionary.
Apple is of the same opinion. In October Tim Cook said: “AR I think is going to become really big,” said Cook. “VR, I think, is not gonna be that big, compared to AR.” On Monday Bloomberg reported that Apple is actively investigating a Google Glass like device, though the product is still very much in the experimental stage.
Then there are little ways AR is coming into our lives through apps like Snapchat and Pokemon Go, which enhance reality by laying information and games on top of the real world. While VR will no doubt transform entertainment — someday — the real revolution is already happening and no one had to wear goggles to enjoy it.