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Google Is Plotting Ways for Developers to Cash In on Virtual Reality Cardboard

Mobile's big money maker may come to VR, but the how still remains.

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To make virtual reality a big thing, big tech companies need to ensure that the people making virtual reality content are on board. They have to keep developers happy.

For instance, Google is talking with developers producing Android apps for Cardboard about enabling in-app purchases within the VR headset, according to multiple sources. It’s not clear when the function will roll out, although there are two natural staging grounds coming up: The Game Developers Conference later this month, and Google’s own developer shindig in May.

The move would be a natural step for VR devices, which are filled primarily with gaming apps (which, in turn, rely on the very big business of buying things inside apps). For Google, though, it’s a particularly important step. On mobile devices, its Android OS plays second fiddle to Apple; iPhone users tend to pay far more for apps and within them, a dynamic developers are very aware of. Google wants to avoid this pattern on VR.

The tricky part — and part of the reason why the feature isn’t out now, or may not come — is that in-app purchases aren’t so simple in VR. On a phone, you can tap an app to, say, buy a new turn in Candy Crush or upgrade to a cooler sword. It’s not as easy with a headset on your face. Pulling a phone out of the Cardboard holder is too cumbersome.

Google is toying around with gaze tracking, a standard tool in VR where users move their head to control the cursor, according to sources. But the Cardboard team hasn’t settled on a method. Nor is it clear how users’ credit card information would be stored, though that would probably move through Google’s Play Store.

“They’re searching for the most elegant model,” said one developer who works with Google.

In January, Google said it has shipped over five million Cardboard units and users have downloaded over 25 million apps since the summer of 2014, 10 million of which came from October through December alone.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Google is working on a more advanced VR headset that would compete with Samsung’s Gear VR and arrive untethered to desktops and smartphones.

Google declined to comment on that and on this.

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