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How Google Is Turning Virtual Reality Into Current Reality

We all know that video is the next big thing.

But Google is already on to the next next big thing. And they’re betting that thing is going to be virtual reality.

Virtual reality is, of course, a technology that simulates how we experience the world from inside our bodies. Viewing photos and watching videos can be deeply engaging, but there’s still a distinct sense of physical separation from the images we see. Through 3D visual renderings, sounds, and other tactile sensations, virtual reality strives to create the fully immersive experience of being somewhere else entirely.

Virtual reality has been a long time coming

VR devices have existed since at least the 1960s, when Morton Heilig built an interactive machine he called the Sensorama.1 By the late 1970s, researchers had figured out how to combine film footage with computer software to create the Aspen Movie Map, which allowed users to take a crudely interactive virtual tour of the streets of Aspen, Colorado, and even go inside some of the buildings.2

But even as the technology continued to make slow strides in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, virtual reality remained on the retail sidelines. For a long time, the equipment was just too cumbersome, the tech was too rudimentary, and the cost was just too high for virtual reality to become a reality for the average consumer.

That is, until now.

It’s all coming together now

Since 2010, we’ve seen a huge rampup in the virtual reality market, and 2016 is by far the biggest year yet. At the end of March Facebook-owned Oculus VR released the first-of-its-kind Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and was answered just days later by its first marketplace competitor, the HTC Vive. Meanwhile PC-maker Lenovo just put out two virtual reality desktop gaming systems, and Sony is gearing up to launch the PlayStation VR in October.

On the non-gaming front, home goods retailer Wayfair recently released a virtual reality app that lets consumers design outdoor patios, Penn State Athletics announced a virtual reality channel called LionVision VR, and Obama became the first president to star in a virtual reality film.3 The film, which celebrated the National Park Service’s centennial, allows viewers to pan and tilt a full 360 degrees to explore Yosemite from any angle they wish (warning: your browser must be completely up-to-date in order for it to work).

That’s not all that’s happening in virtual reality this year, either. All told, Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that VR equipment sales will exceed $1 billion in 2016, and could exceed $20 billion by 2020 — and that’s excluding sales of smartphone-only VR devices.4

Which finally brings us back around to Google.

Google leads the way — with cardboard?

One of Google’s most impactful contributions to the rapidly-growing array of VR products has been, so far, a piece of cardboard. I’m not exaggerating — Google first released Cardboard, an inexpensive fold-out kit that could be transformed into a VR viewer just by adding your smartphone, at the Google I/O 2014 developers conference.

But like anything stamped with the Google name, it wasn’t “just” a piece of cardboard. Along with the viewer, Google also built a software development kit as a framework for developers to embed VR content on the web and in mobile apps. Playing the long game ultimately paid off — by January 2016, over 1,000 Cardboard-compatible applications had been published by developers.5 Now, Google is using the Cardboard platform as a springboard into an “enhanced” VR platform they’re calling Daydream.

And that, of course, was the plan all along.

“We knew that Cardboard would only go so far. Because there’s only so much you can do in terms of immersiveness and interactivity with — let’s be serious — a piece of cardboard, and a phone that was really only meant to be a phone.”
— Clay Bavor, VP of Virtual Reality at Google, in an interview with The Verge

Daydreaming of the future

You know how Google became the go-to search engine, and then became the go-to smartphone operating system? Well, Google now wants to become the go-to superstore for mobile virtual reality. With Daydream set to drop this autumn, Google has spent the last several months pouring money into partnerships with YouTube video stars, Hulu, HBO, Ubisoft, the MLB, and the NBA to get content and apps created for the new service.

It’s not just the content that matters this time, though. In conjunction with Daydream, Google will introduce a new lineup of hardware ranging from a new, sturdier headset and controller to new Android phones that will arrive VR-ready. And they’ll continue to promote Jump, a 360 degree camera rig built with GoPro whose proprietary backend software can collect data from all 16 rig cameras and generate video in stereoscopic 3D, making VR-ready filmmaking as seamless as possible — and paving the way to future user-generated online VR content.

Appealing to the masses

2016 may go down on record as the year in which virtual reality first became truly accessible, but Google may very well go down on record as the media giant who made it happen. Because while other virtual reality equipment and technologies run high-end — with the price tag to match — Google has priced its VR products affordably for the average consumer. And, perhaps more importantly, while other VR products require users to remain tethered to a desktop, console, or other home-based device, Google has staked its VR flag squarely in the ground of mobile.

What all this means is: more virtual reality for more users. That’s putting the power — and the stories — in the hands of the people.

What the future looks like

It might still be hard to imagine virtual reality as something we can do right here, right now, but Google has tried to paint the picture for us:

“What does this mean for audiences? How about access to the best seats in the house at any event—floor seats at the NBA playoffs, a box at La Scala, front row at the Beyoncé show? Or the chance to visit the most beautiful places on earth, from the comfort of home? It’s the closest thing we have to teleportation, enabling deeper engagement than has ever been possible.”

Virtual reality technology has so many other implications for our everyday lives:

  • Education: enriching trips through history
  • Real estate: viewing homes to purchase
  • Travel: experiencing new parts of the world
  • Training: workplace learning taken to new heights
  • Nostalgia: a different way to take a trip down memory lane. Google had a particularly sentimental view on it:

“VR can also create a time machine of sorts. If we start recording the most interesting things that happen this year, then 20 years from now, we’ll be able to go back and experience it like we were there. These could be major global events or personal moments—a birthday party, a wedding, a first day of school. We’ll collect these memories like we do photographs—able to relay or relive them in an intensely vivid way.”

So is virtual reality truly the next big thing? Signs point to yes. VR is on the verge of breaking out into the mainstream, and Google is in the best position to lead the way.

It’s up to the rest of us to follow.

1 Source: Wikipedia; 2 Source: Wikipedia; 3 Source: The Washington Post; 4 Source: Bloomberg; 5 Source: Wikipedia

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