I was blown away when I recently strapped on the Oculus Rift headset and experienced the potential of virtual reality (VR). Facebook saw that potential and spent roughly $2 billion on the company earlier this year.
At last week’s Google I/O, the company introduced its answer to Oculus Rift and may have largely undermined Facebook’s move to dominate the virtual-reality future of the internet. The image at right is Google’s cardboard headset. It uses a smartphone, some open-source software and a few other bits of inexpensive hardware to create a low-cost VR headset.
The company introduced this at I/O to get developers excited about the potential of virtual reality and to demonstrate that expensive headsets weren’t necessary to generate VR experiences. Google has open-sourced the software to enable developers to start building VR experiences for Android immediately.
Google itself built some demo VR experiences, including a VR version of Street View and a YouTube experience. However, it’s encouraging developers to create applications for Android devices that will translate into VR experiences in the very near term.
There are multiple VR headsets in development or production, as Google showed during its Cardboard session at I/O. Oculus Rift is the most widely and well known. The genius of the Google approach is that it turns Android itself into a VR platform.
Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to bring out Oculus Rift headsets next year at or near cost to get them into people’s hands. The current developer version is selling for $350. A more durable and improved version of Cardboard might sell for sub-$100 or even sub-$50.
In the interim, Google is starting to build an ecosystem of VR developers around open-source software with a broad range of use cases in mind. Oculus Rift is currently positioned as a gaming platform, though Facebook recognizes its much broader potential. Google’s approach is in a position to leapfrog Oculus Rift by getting developers to work on a wider array of apps today for devices that people already own.
A number of years ago, virtual world Second Life was the center of speculation about the future of the internet. Everyone was creating me-too virtual worlds and 3D social networks, including Google with the now-shuttered Lively. That all died down, although Second Life still exists.
With smartphones, the arrival of cheaper VR goggles and the prospect of developers building diverse and compelling VR experiences Second Life will get, well, a Second Life. We’ll also see a wide range of new applications and experiences for people: everything from casual games, museum and city tours to educational content and more.
As I’ve said elsewhere, the dark side of all these new immersive VR experiences is that they’re way more potentially addictive than the current 2D internet is today. Google’s entry into the arena now begins a race with Facebook to mainstream VR and create the next major internet platform.
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