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Facebook is using Apple’s playbook for virtual reality. Google is using Google’s.

Here comes Google's big VR splash.

The New York Times's NYTVR Exclusive Look Event Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times

At Google's big I/O developer show next week, expect plenty of virtual reality buzz. If you're there, you might get to take a treat home.

Sources confirmed that the company will be unmasking new VR features for its Android software and a spruced-up version of its cheap Cardboard VR viewing headset, as the Financial Times first reported. Other reports suggest Google is set to deliver a standalone headset — untethered to a smartphone or computer — that competes with manufacturers like Samsung and HTC and solves several nagging issues with the technology.

What those devices look like, how much they cost and whether Google will give them away next week is all TBD. (Google is staying mum before its conference.)

What is becoming clear is the search giant’s unique approach to the nascent media — and the way that is distinct from the strategy of its chief rival, Facebook. Two years after buying Oculus, Facebook has made the gaming company, which produces two VR headsets, the tentpole for its operations.

For a while, Google looked behind the curve. The company quietly assembled an internal team, but only turned it into a division earlier this year. Its strategy is largely built around leveraging its Android operating system and replicating it — ensuring that as many people making or viewing VR are using Google’s tools and platforms as possible.

It’s a bottoms-up approach, but one that could be central as Google looks to shift its biggest parts — search, Maps, YouTube — onto VR, if consumers buy into the niche industry. (A big if.) Bloomberg reported that Google is considering using Project Tango, its smartphone depth sensor tool and a pillar of its VR team, within Maps as a business strategy.

“Google has a lot of assets that could become immersive,” said Anthony Batt, co-founder of VR production studio Wevr. “[Google] has a lot to win here and they have more to lose if they blow it off.”

Cheap vs. curated

When Cardboard arrived, tucked under the seats at its I/O conference two years ago, it signaled Google’s strategy for VR: Get it to as many eyeballs as possible, right now. Here was VR you could try today, not something that ships two years from now.

Any new hardware that arrives next week will maintain this strategy and be the spectacle of the show. But the more important thing is around software. Google plans to introduce new features into the latest version of Android that would make viewing games and video in VR easier and more widespread, according to earlier reports and several sources. The company is also pushing hard on making web content compatible so developers can make VR content that works in mobile browsers.

The new Android features could be hobbled by what hobbles all new Android software: It goes into a very small set of Android phones. (Unless Google can apply it to earlier software versions; I have heard capability will be coming next week.) But the efforts indicate Google’s dogged interest in taking VR mainstream.

For people who make VR stuff, Google is departing from Facebook in an important way. Oculus has an app store for its two headsets, the Rift and Samsung Gear VR. Developers said Facebook’s approach is more like a gaming console — it handpicks select apps that will deliver top-notch experiences. Google is throwing the gates wide to anyone.

“Oculus is like Apple. Android is Android," said Octavio Herrera, co-founder of Lucid Sight, a VR gaming company. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the app store. Oculus is building that. Google and Apple already have it.”

YouTube once more

Google already has YouTube, too. And its broader vision for VR mirrors the video network’s birth: YouTube sprung up because video cameras were cheap and plentiful; Google wants a VR library to come up the same way.

It doesn’t just want average people watching. It wants average people shooting VR and uploading it.

Clay Bavor, its VR chief, listed several use cases in a recent interview — a concert, court-side seats, tourism. “And,” he said, “we already are on the verge of having the technology to capture [the] environment and experience” and convert it to VR footage. Hence Google’s partnership with GoPro for VR cameras, although that is slow going.

This push is where Google begins to converge with Facebook. The social giant is making a VR effort parallel to Oculus, and it revolves heavily around video. Facebook recently released software for a 360-degree VR camera, just like Google did.

For people in the industry, both companies are also using virtual reality to chase to the end goal: Digital interfaces that interact directly with the physical world, possibly ditching screens altogether. So the sharp distinctions between the two companies may start to melt away.

“They started east and west, but they’re all heading north,” said Batt.

The question is how soon the rest of us get north or if we even want to.

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