Analysis: Could 2016 be the year that Google finally breaks the VR market?
Google, the giant that taps into everything everywhere, is still slightly lagging behind other companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Samsung when it comes to virtual reality (VR).
However, in an unexpected twist – especially after the lack of VR announcements by Google at CES 2016 – the multinational unveiled on January 13 that it is going to put together a solo VR business arm.
A Google source confirmed to CBR that "Google has appointed Clay Bavor as vice president of Virtual Reality at Google".
Apart from Apple, Google has been one of the only tech giants to have delayed a serious entrance in to the VR segment.
The multinational’s timid approach to VR could be about to change this year, with the Alphabet business unit now firmly in the race to revolutionise the VR market.
The announcement of the creation of a VR business unit, allied with a string of content and use cases for this technology, could indicate a solid VR year ahead for Google.
Speaking to CBR, Dr. Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE, said that Google’s forming of a new virtual reality division makes sense. "Virtual Reality is the future. It is a no-brainer for those in the tech industry."
Google’s adventures in the augmented and virtual spaces started in 2012, when it unveiled Glass. The augmented reality (AR) device was hailed as ‘the gadget’ by many in the industry, and was named by Time Magazine as one of the "Best Inventions of the Year".
In 2014, Google was involved in the funding of alternative reality firm Magic Leap, who secured $542 million to developed new technologies and experiences also to be used on Glass.
However, Glass was stopped in 2015, with Google unveiling plans to start working on smart AR contact lenses – that on top of the AR functions would also measure diabetes patients’ glucose levels.
Yet, in September last year the company brought back Glass under the new name Aura, bringing on board three Amazon experts to build an Aura solution that would go "Glass and beyond".
In 2014, the company launched the Google Cardboard. A £10 DIY VR set targeted for the masses. The device proved popular amongst consumers. Last Summer, The New York Times signed a deal with Google to distribute one million Cardboards to its readers.
Dr. Curran said: "Google’s cardboard project was actually a good idea. It provided some sort of VR experience quite cheaply for people but in some ways, it does hinder the rollout as it is simply not VR as we who have tried VR know it to be."
Interestingly, the Google game around the VR space has been mostly focused on the applications and content for the headsets.
In a first of its kind, the company last year signed a partnership with GoPro that allows users to upload 360-degree videos on YouTube which can then be watched on its Google Cardboard via a smartphone.
VR, especially when complimented with extra sensors, can be exhilarating, according to Dr. Curran, who also believes "Google are one of the few companies who have a hope of making a splash in this marketplace".
He said: "The content [for VR] will come. Google will be a huge player here. They do not like to be in second place in any segment. Google VR search is just a stone’s throw away."
This might certainly be Google’s big window of opportunity in the VR space for 2016. As other companies like Samsung, HTC, Facebook and Microsoft, put out to market their £200 plus products, there is still a lack of applications and content to be visualised and experience.
Google has all the tools to make this happen, not only with its YouTube platform, but also with its team of apps creators and content designers.
Reports have also revealed that Google plans to increase its hardware research and build its own system on a chip (SoC) for VR devices, according to The Information.
The report mentioned a Google source that said the company wants to "get into the guts of the chip and make sure chip vendors are provisioning enough horsepower".
Nevertheless, the VR game is not solely applicable to the consumer spectrum and Google will be also eyeing other industries like education and healthcare.
In 2015, the company unveiled the Expeditions program based on its Cardboard. Proving that the company is serious about VR content development.
The Expeditions platform has been built to be used in classrooms around the world and includes over 100 journeys to different parts of the world, including underwater experiences.
The immersive project allows one teacher to guide a maximum of 50 students at the same time through different virtual scenes using a tablet.
Expedition teams will be travelling the world in 2016 to trains teacher in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Singapore and Denmark in how to work with the technology.
Doug Magyari, CEO of IMMY, told CBR: "You can become completely emotionally engaged in the subject and learn at a rate that was unimaginable and it helps you to be able to be connected to whatever subject you are interested in.
"Being able to become passionate and electrified about subjects is really the most wonderful part of the technology.
"Everybody knows this is the next major revolution. This is really bigger than what the mobile phone did, because it has such a broad range of ability to change everything."
As 2016 is dubbed the year of use cases for the IoT, a strong benefit of VR technology was also showcased in Florida.
Using Google’s low-priced VR set, doctors performed a surgery in an "inoperable" four-month-old baby’s heart.
Dr. Redmond Burke, from Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, agreed to operate Teegan Lexcen, born with only one lung and half a heart. Dr. Burke was handed a Cardboard by a colleague and the device allowed him to view the baby’s heart, chest wall and all other relevant parts to the surgery, saving Lexcen’s life.
Dr. Curran sees in VR the future of technology as it allows one to experience a world where he/she can be properly scared, thrilled, relaxed, and entertained.
"VR done properly is expensive. It is simple hard to get right. It is more of an art than a science in some ways and you also need the supporting VR content.
"VR is crucial in the future as it can simply bridge the gap between a mundane experience and a real one."
As for Google, all its works around AR with Glass and Aura, VR with Cardboard and content development, coupled by its newest business unit dedicated to VR, could see the tech giant come out in 2016 as a top player in the VR space, advancing the technology like it did before with search engines.