Google Cardboard. Image: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr
Any notions that Google was merely toying around with virtual reality should probably be put to bed.
According to the Financial Times, Google this year will release a new VR headset that, similar to the Samsung Gear VR and Google’s own Cardboard, will give users the ability to view VR content using their smartphone. But unlike the Gear VR, which only works with newer Samsung smartphones like the Galaxy S6, Google’s new headset will be compatible with a “much broader range” of Android-based devices, according to FT.
In fact, FT notes that VR support will likely be baked directly into Android, meaning that users won’t have to download a separate app to view VR content (as is currently the case with Google Cardboard), further reducing the hurdles that Android users looking to experience VR must jump.
None of this has an exact release date—Google, naturally, isn’t commenting on its plans—but given that Google’s big developer show, I/O, takes place in May, and given that Cardboard debuted at I/O in 2014, it’s hard to expect to the month of May to come and go without some of sort of announcement.
Contrast Google’s VR strategy to, say, Facebook’s. The company in 2014 bought Oculus VR for $2 billion, with the first consumer headset set shipping in late March for $600—and that doesn’t include the cost of the powerful PC needed to use the device in the first place. Google’s, meanwhile, appears to be leveraging the fact that there are a lot of Android smartphones floating around out there—more than 1.1 billion such devices were shipped in 2015 alone, according to research firm IDC—and all of which are potential (and relatively cheap, compared to Oculus) gateways to VR.
And just because Google’s experience is less expensive doesn’t make it any less immersive: In my tests last fall with a variety of VR adult videos—the adult entertainment industry has been an early proponent of VR—the only difference between VR experience in Cardboard and VR experienced in Samsung’s more costly setup was the awkwardness of having to manually hold Cardboard to my face… which is not ideal when trying to experience that kind of content.
Other company’s VR strategies are even less clear. Apple? According to Tim Cook, VR is “really cool,” with reports only now surfacing that the company is beginning to hire VR experts. Amazon? Nothing from these guys, with the closest being a 3D effect found on the company’s failed Fire Phone.
Ultimately, as was the case with the smartphone explosion that began about 10 years ago, consumers stand to benefit quickly from the likes of Google’s continued investment into and experimentation with VR. (The company still has plenty of available jobs for VR experts!) The sooner VR stops being an exotic “other” that’s exclusively the domain of, well, nerds like me, the better for VR as a future computing platform.