When it comes to the future of virtual reality (VR), mobile matters. Enthusiasts may be anticipating the arrival of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR kits in the weeks and months to come, but Oculus VR and Samsung’s already-available Gear VR is nothing to sneer at. In the long-term, hardware manufacturers will look to combine the standalone nature of a mobile-based head-mounted display (HMD) like this with the tracking and power of PC and console-based kits. But it’s a long way off, and Gear VR still has a long way to go before it represents the true future of VR.
That’s why this month’s rumours that Google is working on a true competitor to the Gear VR are so exciting. Previously, the search engine giant released the Google Cardboard concept. It’s as low-end as the tech gets, mostly made out of household materials and relying entirely on the user’s smartphone, but it’s opened up VR to the world in a way that Gear VR and the Oculus Rift won’t be able to do for years. With the concept under its belt, Google could give Oculus VR and Samsung a run for their money with a plastic HMD, said to be released this year.
But what could the new HMD do to top Gear VR? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Content is the key factor here. Gear VR runs with Android, but all of its VR content is to be bought and consumed through Oculus VR’s own app, acting as a sort of modified version of that app store. When Google releases a HMD, however, you have access to the entire store. Granted, content that’s exclusive to Gear VR will still be buried away within the Oculus app, but with a true competitor to the kit available, developers would surely look to getting their content on the main store asap.
If this meant Google created a dedicated space for VR compatible apps as suggested, this would be huge, especially if the HMD supported all Google Cardboard compatible apps. That would mean that hundreds of apps were available on the platform from launch. Granted that worthwhile software is few and far between on Google Cardboard, but you could still lose weeks trying to sample everything that’s available right now.
Not forgetting that the HMD could have a few huge exclusives of its own up its sleeve. Currently the only way to watch YouTube 360 videos in VR is through the Android app with Google Cardboard. It’s not surprising that the app hasn’t shown up on Gear VR’s own store yet, much in the way that Facebook’s 360 videos support Gear VR but not Google Cardboard. Then there are other Google Cardboard compatible apps that have been born from staples of Google software such as Street View. It may not have exclusive videogames on its side at the moment, but Google’s own services getting VR support could give the platform a formidable advantage.
The report also makes mention of some improved sensors. It may still be out of reach, but if this meant the addition of positional tracking – a feature that’s absence plagues mobile VR right now – then Google would have its biggest advantage over Gear VR by far. It’s a system that could, theoretically, be added retroactively too, bringing it to old Cardboard apps and giving them that bit more immersion.
Of course, there are some struggles the platform will have to overcome itself. Fragmentation is the key issue; if the HMD supports a wide range of Android phones, how will it split content that works on one phone with content that doesn’t? It’s not a problem that’s unique to VR; Android is widely regarded as the most fragmented smartphone operating system (OS) for this reason.
As with Apple, though, there’s a part of us that would love to see Google strive to create the most high-end VR HMD possible right now, but the thought of the company offering a new contender for the mobile market is also exciting. The group has over a year of data to analyse and data to research from the release of both Google Cardboard and Gear VR, giving them the perfect opportunity to create the next step up for high-end mobile VR. The year of VR might just be getting that bit bigger.