This year’s annual Google I/O event took place in California last week, with merely a mention of virtual reality (VR). The birthplace of both Google Cardboard (2014) and the Google Daydream View (2016) head-mounted display (HMD) benefited from a heavy focus on augmented reality (AR), but VR was very definitely sidelined. In fact, only one mention of VR was made during the entire event: Tiltbrush.
While it may be quite easy to take a pessimistic view on this occurrence, there’s a potential brightside to be looking at here. An update to Tiltbrush being the only aspect of VR discussed at the event suggests three things to me:
- Google is still invested in VR through the successful projects the company has already backed.
- Innovation is still encouraged in the sector at the company.
- There’s a conscious effort to maintain position, perhaps preparing for when a larger audience is ready to adopt high-end VR HMDs.
2019 will bring a seismic shift to VR. We’re looking at a pivotal moment when the medium begins to move away from early adopters and starts to target a mainstream audience. This is something that Oculus in particular (under the strong guiding hand of Facebook naturally) has been preparing for with the Oculus Quest and the Rift S. The Oculus Quest is a new entry-level HMD that purports experiences akin to those of the Oculus Rift three years ago, but without the necessary complications of a PC and tracking system to accompany them. It’s a ‘get-it-and-go’ system that allows for younger audiences as well as less tach-savvy consumers. The Rift S is a refresh of the Oculus Rift that borrows heavily from Windows Mixed Reality HMDs in simplifying the set-up process whilst still offering high-end VR experiences.
These two new HMDs are essential stepping stones towards a new era of VR (and ultimately, that AR/VR convergence that anyone working in the industry knows is an eventuality, not a maybe), so given that mobile VR has undergone a radical downturn in that no longer is an Android smartphone required to use the HMDs (Vive Focus, Oculus Go, Mirage Solo, Oculus Quest) but also that high-end VR is becoming easier to use, where does that leave Google’s Cardboard and Daydream View platforms? Behind; that’s where.
There’s no longer room for these incredibly lightweight experiences as the bottom line has been shifted northwards, and after Google’s heavy investment in these platforms for what can easily be assumed to be minimal return, it’s unlikely that the tech giant is ready to launch another testing-the-waters product until significant headway has been made. But that’s the key here: VR is taking longer than many expected to grow a substantial enough audience to be recognised as a leading platform, and as such many companies have chosen to stall their experiments before diving-in headfirst. I believe Google is following this path.
So the expectation is that we will see more VR from Google in the future. ‘But when?’ you ask. Of course, I don’t have the answer to this, but my guess would be that the huge amount of AR demonstrated at Google I/O is showcasing a lead for a technology that is almost universally available already, and thus Google will likely put their weight behind VR again once the same can be said of this medium.