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Google Goes Beyond Cardboard With Revamped VR Focus

Google is aiming to make virtual reality into a real business with its dedicated VR division now headed by Clay Bavor.
CIOs Detail Hiring Plans For First Half Of 2016
CIOs Detail Hiring Plans For First Half Of 2016
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Google has placed its virtual reality group under new leadership, appointing Clay Bavor, formerly a product management vice president for Google Apps who oversaw the company's Cardboard VR viewer initiative, to be vice president of virtual reality. Google's VR group launched in 2014 and includes Expeditions, Jump, and other investments.

This year has been frequently referred to as "the year of virtual reality," because the media and the tech industry insist on labelling years to highlight trends. 2015 was also the year of virtual reality, by some accounts. The year 2014 has a claim on that title too, because that was when Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire VR headset maker Oculus and when Google introduced Cardboard, its DIY VR headset. There were several years during the 1990s, when VRML was the next big thing, that could have qualified as the year of virtual reality.

Such labelling is largely driven by hope that the designated trend will turn into a meaningful revenue stream. Tech advisory firm Digi-Capital anticipates that money will flow, eventually. The firm expects VR revenue will reach $30 billion in 2020. This year, it sees early adopters investing in VR, but notes that the powerful computer hardware required to show VR content is beyond the reach of most consumers.

"Moore's Law and a flagging PC market searching for growth could bring [VR] within reach of mass consumers by 2017," Digi-Capital said in a blog post last month.

However, there's also the issue of VR-induced motion sickness, which remains an issue for some people.

Nonetheless, the major technology companies are investing in VR and its more promising sibling, augmented reality (AR). AR earns that distinction by being more widely applicable to real-world concerns and activities. The technology involves mapping computer graphics onto a person's view of the real world, as opposed to displaying a wholly computer-generated virtual world. AR's utility beyond games and entertainment helps explain why Google in 2014 invested in AR startup Magic Leap and Apple last year acquired AR software maker Metaio. AR has potential value to businesses. Digi-Capital sees AR revenue reaching $90 billion by 2020.

Google's commitment to the technology is clearly serious, despite the low-key nature of its Cardboard headset. On Wednesday, Google announced that its Cardboard SDKs for Android and Unity support spatial audio. Perhaps more telling are the dozens of VR-related job openings at Google.

[Read Microsoft, NASA Send HoloLens Into Space.]

Google wants others to share its interest in VR, as can be seen from Bavor's recent tweet about how Cardboard was used in an operation that saved a baby's life. VR, in other words, is not just for hardcore gamers.

VR initially will be consumed as entertainment, but it risks becoming like 3D in movies -- an overhyped technology that underwhelms while costing too much. There will be a few VR gaming hits, but how many games will be so much better with VR that consumers want to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in extra hardware for the premium experience? Developers will have to do a lot of exploration to understand what works and what doesn't. That's what's happening this year.

VR and AR are inevitable, but it will take time before we figure out where the technology becomes essential.

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Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer