A reported plan by Google to develop a new version of Android for virtual reality headsets is the latest sign of the growing interest in this market among major technology vendors, according to IT industry analysts.
The Wall Street Journal on Friday reported that Google has already assembled a secret team of “tens of engineers” to develop the new operating system, which it will distribute for free to VR headset makers. The new Android team was assembled in the wake of Facebook’s surprise $2 billion purchase of VR technology Oculus in March 2014.
Clay Bavor, vice president of product management, who helped create the Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer, is one of two people in charge of the new project, the Journal reported, citing unnamed sources. The other executive is Jeremy Doig,
Google's director of engineering.
A story in the Financial Times said Google’s plans to develop a VR-specific Android version was prompted by the unexpected success of Cardboard virtual reality viewer. Since its launch last year as an do-it-yourself headset for viewing 3D images on Android smartphone screens, Cardboard has become a popular item among VR enthusiasts.
More than 1 million people have downloaded the Android app for Cardboard over the past year prompting Google’s interest in a separate operating system for the environment the FT said.
The product’s rapid uptake has transformed Cardboard from a casual, hobbyist project inside Google to one that has become a full-time project for some engineers, the newspaper reported. “There’s a lot going on under the surface that is way bigger than a $20 piece of cardboard,” the Financial Times quoted an unnamed source as saying.
A Google spokesman refused to confirm or deny the reports saying instead that the company does not comment on rumors and speculation in the media.
Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates said Google’s reported plan is consistent with its habit of wanting to participate in new markets at an early stage. He pointed to Google Glass as one example. Though Glass was experimental, it had some impact in terms of stirring up market interest in the technology, he said.
Rather than focusing on bringing its own VR headsets to market, which a company like Apple might consider, Google is following its usual practice of bringing together a good reference design for hardware partners to carry into the market, Kay said.
“It is more like showing how it is done and then letting others actually do it,” he said. “From Google’s standpoint they are a software company,” he said. The company’s focus will be to make Android the most widely deployed OS in the emerging VR space just like it already is in the mobile market.
Dan Olds, an analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group said Facebook’s purchase of Oculus appears to have grabbed Google’s attention and prompted its decision to develop a VR-specific Android.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has already signaled the company’s plans to make Oculus’s VR technology the basis for a next- generation communication platform.
Zuckerberg has said he plans to extend Oculus from its current niche in the VR gaming market to new areas like education and health care.
Google clearly does not want to fall too far behind Facebook in what is sure to be a big market for VR technologies, Olds said. “This is going to be an absolutely big business,” with numerous applications in areas as varied as the entertainment industry, enterprise collaboration and the travel industry, Olds said.
A growing number of companies, besides Google and Facebook, have begun dipping their feet in the virtual reality market as well.
Earlier this year, Microsoft staked its presence in the market with HoloLens, a Windows 10 headset that is designed to let users view and manipulate objects in a virtual environment. Samsung, which is Google’s biggest hardware partner, recently introduced a VR headset that combines its Galaxy Note 4 smartphone with technology from Oculus.
Sony similarly is working on a virtual reality headset code-named Project Morpheus that is designed to work with its PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 platforms. Many think the product will be a direct competitor to the Oculus Rift headset now owned by Facebook.