Google appears determined to own entry-level virtual reality (for now)

Expensive, high-powered systems like Oculus Rift will be a hit with enthusiasts, but the far larger market in the immediate term is casual phone-based hardware

The Google “Daydream” VR headset.

The Google “Daydream” VR headset. (Google)

As is evident from the company’s product unveiling last week, Google is getting into hardware in a big way.

At a press event in San Francisco that was simulcast in Toronto, the company launched an array of new products including two new Pixel phones, the Daydream View virtual reality headset, the Google Wi-Fi router, the Home voice-assistant speaker and a new 4K Chromecast dongle.

It was the largest assortment of devices ever launched at once by the company and a coming-out party of sorts for its recently formed hardware division, which is headed up by former Motorola head Rick Osterloh.

Osterloh, recruited earlier this year, confirmed this is no mere hobby for the company. “This is a natural step and we’re in it for the long run,” he said.

So why is Google suddenly so interested in hardware? There are a few reasons. Osterloh, for one, affirmed what companies such as Apple have long known – that designing both hardware and software together generally results in superior products. Google is evidently no longer happy to supply just the software.

Also, as I wrote for The National last week, there is the likelihood that some of the new products – the Pixel phones and the Home speaker in particular – will help Google maintain its sizeable lead over competitors in artificial intelligence. The devices will help the company gather more voice, photo and text data—the stuff on which AI is built.

But one other likely motivation for the hardware charge is virtual reality, a field that Google clearly wants to lead.

We’re not talking about the sort of high-end VR that Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR are pushing. Google looks to be more interested in the lower-end, or the more near-term and achievable segment of 360 photos and videos.

Google of course pioneered 360 photos years ago with Street View, the ground-eye-view function of its Maps app that has since become indispensable for people trying to find their way around. The company opened Street View to public contributions a few years ago and has been certifying professional photographers since.

In the meantime, 360 cameras have become better and cheaper. Selling for between $300 to $500, the Ricoh Theta S, Samsung Gear 360 and LG 360 are all within reach of mainstream buyers and supply decent quality images.

Google’s Street View apps and YouTube platform, meanwhile, are among the only major online outlets that currently make publishing and sharing 360 images and video easy (Facebook, which owns Oculus, is the other).

Viewing 360 images and video on a desktop, phone or tablet is neat and easy – you either click and drag, or swipe. I’ve been fiddling with a number of 360 cameras for a few months now and the reaction the photos and videos inspire are inevitably the same: amazement.

Here’s video I shot with the Ricoh Theta S on the Maid of the Mist tour in Niagara Falls:


Such 360 content is cool on a two-dimensional surface, but it becomes jaw-dropping when viewed with a VR headset. That’s not just hyperbole – images and videos literally wrap around the viewer, which makes the experience far more visceral than anything found in 2D.

Cheap headsets for viewing this content are proliferating, but so far the best available has been Samsung’s Gear 360.

Powered by Oculus technology, the $139 device turns smartphones into miniature VR machines, good for playing short games and looking at 360 photos and videos. Of course, the device only works with a select few Samsung phones.

Google’s Daydream View, pictured at top, is a big development in VR and 360 imagery. The device, which I tried out at the company’s event last week, is handily the best phone-based VR headset yet.

It’s wrapped in soft fabric, so it’s not as clunky as the Gear VR and its lenses don’t fog up. It’s also lightweight and comfortable and the lenses are crystal clear. There’s also a small touch control for navigating around the various associated apps and menus:

Daydream home screen interface


The Daydream View is also priced attractively at $99 and will work with Daydream-certified devices, starting with the Pixel phones. All told, Samsung’s Gear VR is facing a formidable competitor.

High-end virtual reality is going to face a number of obstacles in gaining acceptance – cost, movement problems and bandwidth issues, which I’ll address in a separate post, are among them.

The low-end, however, is where the real action is going to be. Three-sixty imagery is high in “wow” factor – I’ve joked with friends that I just can’t take boring 2D photos anymore – and it’s perfectly affordable. Put those two together and the field is primed for an explosion of user-generated content.

Google knows this and is getting in at the ground floor with the correct hardware. The only thing the company is missing is a good 360 camera. It’s a good bet that’s next.

It’s also a good bet that the future is three-dimensional, which is why every household is going to want a good, inexpensive VR headset with which to view all those user-created photos and videos. Google has smartly positioned itself to lead the charge in nearly every aspect of this 360 future.