Google pushes further into virtual reality with new headset

Google pushes further into virtual reality with new headset
By Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco February 7, 2016 6:43 pm

Google is developing a new virtual-reality headset for smartphones, and adding extra support for the technology to its Android operating system, as it challenges Facebook's Oculus for an early lead in Silicon Valley’s latest platform war.

The new headset will be a successor to Cardboard. the cheap-and-cheerful mobile VR viewer that Google launched in 2014, and feature better sensors, lenses and a more solid plastic casing, said people familiar with its plans. The smartphone-based device will be similar to the Gear VR, a collaboration between Samsung and Oculus that went on sale to consumers late last year.

Google is expected to release its rival headset, alongside new Android VR technology, this year. Like Cardboard and Gear VR, the new headset will use an existing smartphone, slotted into the device, for its display and most of its processing power. 

Google Cardboard relies solely on sensors built into modern smartphones to detect the position of a user’s head, while Gear VR is more sturdily built and features extra motion sensors. The updated Google headset will be compatible with a much broader range of Android devices than Gear VR, which only works with a handful of recent Samsung Galaxy smartphone models, as the Alphabet unit tries to bring the technology to a wider audience.

Google is hoping to improve the quality of the mobile VR viewing experience by embedding new software directly into its Android smartphone operating system, rather than relying only on a traditional app as it does with Cardboard today. One issue with many current smartphone-based VR viewers is that users can feel dizzy or nauseous. This is because the virtual images displayed can lag slightly behind the user's head movements in the real world, known as latency.

Having shipped more than 5m units to date, Cardboard has been far more successful than Google expected when it launched the low-cost goggles in 2014. By improving resolution and latency, the combination of better Android software and the new headset will allow viewers to spend longer in VR and enable developers to create more sophisticated apps.

Google declined to comment on the updated headset, but Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, said last week that Cardboard was “just the first step” in its VR efforts. “Beyond these early efforts, you’ll see a lot more from us and our partners in 2016,” Mr Pichai said on an earnings call for Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

Google’s efforts in VR have expanded over the past year. Clay Bavor, who previously led both Google’s apps and VR units, became full-time head of Cardboard and related products last month.

“VR is too important and too powerful a medium to be accessible to only a few,” Mr Bavor told Time magazine in an interview last month. The creation of a mobile VR headset that works with more than just Oculus software and Samsung phones will mark the opening of a new front in Google’s wide-ranging rivalry with Facebook.

Google is likely to take a similar approach to its latest push into VR as it has with its Nexus line of smartphones: creating flagship hardware to show off the latest Android capabilities but letting other manufacturers use them to develop their own compatible products. Google typically previews new Android features at its I/O developer conference in May before launching its latest Nexus devices in September, with the VR headset likely to follow that timetable.

Cardboard uses an open-source design that any manufacturer can produce and sell, using the “Works with Google Cardboard” badge to reassure consumers that apps will be compatible.

Some industry analysts predict that mobile VR will achieve mainstream appeal more quickly than the more sophisticated but expensive Oculus Rift or Sony’s PlayStation VR. These headsets, initially targeted at gamers, cost hundreds of dollars and must be tethered to a PC or games console.

As well as near-term bets on mobile VR, Google is also a significant investor in the more long-term and ambitious concept of “mixed reality”. Last week, it was part of a large group of investors that put nearly $800m into Magic Leap, a Florida-based start-up working on a headset that uses light-field technology to project realistic images directly into the eye. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016.


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