Why Google Is Doubling Down On VR Division

More than a year and a half after Google introduced what still looks more like a mockup of a virtual-reality device than a real virtual-reality device, it’s finally getting real on VR. But not for the reason most people seem to think.

Today, Google confirmed that it has created a new virtual-reality group headed by Clay Bavor, a vice president for product management who has headed apps such as Gmail, Docs, and Drive–and Cardboard, the cheapo device that turns a smartphone into a crude but surprisingly effective VR headset.

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The assumption by many observers is that Google is playing catch-up to Facebook’s Oculus, which just released its high-end Rift device, and other VR headsets such as the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR introduced last fall.

But Google is playing a rather different game than Facebook, in particular, and other makers of VR devices. For one, it’s betting that smartphones will be the route to a mass market for virtual reality. (Samsung is also betting on the smartphone, but only its own smartphones, at least for now. If you have an iPhone, or any Android phone besides two Galaxy S 6 models, you’re out of luck.)

Cardboards can be had for less than $10, which makes them not only cheap enough to be impulse purchases, but cheap enough for many companies to give them out free. The New York Times, for instance, gave out 1 million of them to subscribers to jumpstart its move into VR content. As primitive as they look, it has been clear–and now is even clearer to everyone–that Google has been putting serious thought and effort into Cardboard.

Given the Oculus’ high price–$600 plus a capable enough personal computer at a cost of at least $1,000–it will not be a mass consumer device anytime soon. Moore’s Law will change that sometime down the road, but not for at least a year or two, maybe more.

What Google aims to create is a critical mass of users–tens of millions and eventually hundreds of millions–for virtual reality content that will keep its advertising system humming for decades to come. In that sense, it’s not really competing with Oculus, which for the foreseeable future will be mostly for hard-core gamers.

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