When a hot startup launches a virtual reality product, influencers and investors notice. When Facebook and Google bet on virtual reality, the whole world notices. Recently these two market makers unveiled their VR visions and plans at their own bellwether events, Facebook F8 and Google I/O. Both their plans are important because Facebook and Google possess the resources and reach to make VR more mainstream to everyday consumers faster than any startup ever could. Both their visions are intriguing. I believe Google’s is more compelling and far-reaching.
At F8, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg articulated a simple, clear vision for VR: social VR, or connecting two or more people in the virtual world. Social VR is intuitively easy to grasp even if you don’t know how we’ll get there. Facebook users (wearing Facebook’s Oculus Rift headsets, naturally) can explore virtual worlds together, ranging from virtual Ping-Pong matches to virtual excursions to Bali, which makes posting information on each other’s wall seem quaint by comparison.
During his F8 keynote, Zuckerberg said, “VR has the potential to be the most social platform because you have the ability to be right there with another person.” But Facebook doesn’t just talk vision — the world’s largest social network shows it. Accordingly, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, wearing an Oculus Rift headset and using controllers, demonstrated a shared VR experience with Michael Booth of Facebook’s Social VR team, who was 30 miles away and also using Oculus Rift. Together, they visited London through VR — or at least their avatars did, projected on a giant screen. The F8 attendees oohed and aahed as their floating avatars checked out Piccadilly Circus and took a selfie together in front of Big Ben.
The moment was a brilliant bit of theater that instantly injected excitement into the Facebook brand and gave us a glimpse at what social VR can look like. Afterward, Lance Ulanof of Mashable spoke for many pundits watching when he wrote, “Bravo, Facebook. Social VR is now officially something I want in Facebook. You made me want it, damn you.”
Others were even loftier, including Matt Weinberger of Business Insider, who wrote, “Just try to picture what this looks like, especially through Facebook’s lens of bringing people together. It means that if Facebook’s vision comes to life, we’ll all have glasses that will let us talk to and interact with anybody on earth as if they’re in the same room as us, whether they’re physically in the world’s richest countries or its poorest.”
But there are strings attached.
For starters, social VR as Facebook knows really means social VR for avatars. It wasn’t Mike Schroepfer and Michael Booth hanging out in London together, but rather their cheesy looking avatars. It remains unclear whether the avatar will catch on as an acceptable form of socializing for any length of time (on Facebook or anywhere) versus an amusing way to express ourselves in passing. Let’s see how that user experience evolves.
Second, VR is really Facebook VR. Experiencing Facebook’s vision means doing so on Facebook’s turf and on its own terms. Already, Facebook faces criticism for creating a walled garden that isolates its community.
Third, but certainly not least important: Oculus Rift is hardly a tool for the masses. Oculus Rift is a $600 system that requires a gaming PC. Gamers will pay for the gear, but who else will? As an alternative, users can try Samsung Gear VR, which is powered by Oculus technology, but the experience is said to be inferior. It should be noted that Mike Beltzner, Facebook’s product manager and business lead, told Mashable’s Ulanoff that Facebook envisions VR extending beyond Oculus Rift. Whatever the case, it will be critical for Facebook to remove the prohibitive barrier of cost — not to mention the clunky nature of Oculus Rift gear. But according to Zuckerberg, the future of VR gear will look much more elegant than we know it today — something like this:
For Facebook, VR is part of a 10-year vision, not a here-and-now reality. And Facebook knows a lot of work needs to be done. For the near term, Facebook is relying on Oculus Fit to support its transformation into a media/entertainment brand. Back when Facebook acquired Oculus Rift in 2014, Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook wall, “The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there’s a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform. We’re going to focus on helping Oculus build out their product and develop partnerships to support more games.”
Indeed, At F8, Zuckerberg announced that the first versions of Oculus Rift include more than 50 games. In the near term, look for gamers to fuel the uptake of Facebook’s VR vision.
Google’s vision for VR under CEO Sundar Pichai lacks the focus and clarity of Facebook’s. At its Google I/O 2016, the world’s most valuable brand envisioned a future that consists of everyday Google users relying on VR to do everything from watch concerts on YouTube to navigate Google Maps.
That lack of focus is also a strength. Experiencing the world with Google means conducting a far broader range of activities than Facebook imagines, with Google being a VR pocketknife to enable those experiences. When you consider that Google commands a considerable amount of our attention already, including 100 billion searches a month, you begin to grasp the magnitude of Google’s potential impact on VR.
At I/O, Vice President of Virtual Reality Clay Bavor showed how Google will play this role through Daydream, a VR ecosystem that Google will make available later in 2016. The ecosystem has three parts:
- Smartphones. Google envisions VR-ready smartphones to be at the center of a mobile VR experience that we take with us everywhere. Unlike Apple, Google does not make smartphones, instead collaborating with manufacturers such as LG and Samsung, with the manufacturers providing the hardware, and Google providing the Android operating system needed to power the smartphones. Relying on its relationships with the manufacturers, Google has designed specs to make Android-powered smartphones ready for Daydream VR. Google has also introduced “VR mode” for Android N, the code name for the latest Android operating system, meaning that both the hardware and the software for future Android phones will be ready for VR. Daydream-ready smartphones include high-performance sensors for accurate head tracking, displays with faster response times, and powerful mobile processors. As Bavor said, “These improvements are part of the core of Android N, so that the entire ecosystem can benefit. What that means for developers is that that there will be a lot of Daydream-ready phones.”
- A headset and controller. Google does not intend for users to simply use their phones to experience VR on tiny screens. Instead, Google has created the reference design for a forthcoming headset and controller, which will work with Daydream-ready phones to create immersive experiences, such as turning a YouTube video on your phone into IMAX-sized screen.
The controller, optimized for VR, looks like an Apple remote. And the controller is important. Powerful controllers make VR more of an active experience for users rather than a passive watching — the difference between watching a VR world and living in it. The new headset and controller are expected to cost considerably less than Oculus Rift gear. The headset will inherit the mantel from Cardboard, the rudimentary VR headset that Google launched in 2014 to get consumers and developers comfortable with the headset-smartphone interface that would eventually become Daydream. Cardboard, introduced for a low cost, has shipped 5 million units.
- Apps. Apps designed for VR provide the content. Accordingly, Google has built Google Play for VR to make it easy for users to find and install VR apps. And many VR apps are coming. Google has partnered with companies to bring everything from movies to news to Daydream. Google Play will give users access to VR news apps such as Wall Street Journal and CNN (in Bavor’s words, “Experience the world’s news like you’re actually there”); gaming apps from brands such as EA and Ubisoft; and entertainment apps from the likes of HBO and Netflix.
And Google is working on its own apps including Google Play movies, StreetView (“Walk the streets of the world without having to fly around the world”), and Google Photos. In a major development, Google has also rebuilt YouTube from the ground up for VR, including spatial audio and improved VR video streaming.
According to Bavor, “We have designed each part to be used in concert with the others to get the end-to-end experience just right.” And Android smartphones are just the start. Ultimately Google believes that “Over time, Daydream will encompass VR devices in many shapes and sizes.”
Like Facebook, Google faces challenges, including a tendency for Google to get lost in its own geekiness. Whereas Facebook speaks of social VR in terms anyone can understand, Google sometimes gets lost in jargon such as motion-to-photon latency to sell the vision of Daydream. As Google showed with Google Glass and Google+, the company is vulnerable to introducing new products that appeal to tech insiders but don’t catch on elsewhere. But Google seems to be learning from its mistakes. As noted, in 2014, Google made VR more palatable to the masses with the brilliant, accessible Cardboard product. Although the purpose of Cardboard was to simply give us a taste of what’s possible through an admittedly crude headset, Cardboard accomplished its mission: more than 50 million Cardboard-enabled apps have been installed according to Google.
Google also needs to manage expectations and clarify what, exactly, forthcoming VR-ready experiences are going to do. Here again, Google has stumbled of late. During the 2016 Coachella music festival, YouTube crowed about pushing live music toward VR with spatial audio and 360-degree video. In a blog post that wallowed in its own insider geekiness, YouTube oversold an experience as being more immersive than Coachella livestreams have ever been, when in fact the actual experience was a cringe-worthy step backward.
Nevertheless, I believe Google’s vision will make VR more widespread than Facebook’s for these reasons:
- Google’s vision touches our everyday lives in more ways, ranging from how we search to how we experience content. And Daydream, while being at the center of Google’s vision, is not the only component. For instance, Google recently rolled out Tilt Brush, which enables the painting of life-size, three-dimensional images when used with the HTC Vive VR equipment. For Google, VR enables discovery, work, and play. With YouTube being rebuilt for VR, I’m optimistic that indeed the music streaming experience will deliver on Google’s vision.
- Google has designed a mobile ecosystem encompassing hardware, software, and devices. By contrast, Facebook wants to bring users into its world rather than be a more active part of our lives outside Facebook. It should be noted that Facebook’s world is big, with an estimated 1.65 billion active members, versus 1.4 billion Android users. But Google’s already-established ecosystem, combined with Google’s influence in our lives well beyond social, will make Google a more influential VR market maker, and sooner.
- Google has already demonstrated with Cardboard that the company can make VR a more everyday experience. Cardboard is the anti-Google Glass, making new technology a democratic experience.
With Cardboard, Google has set itself up already as a Pied Piper of VR. One crucial question to be answered later this year: will its new VR headset be affordable enough for Google to continue to democratize VR?
Finally, a caveat: I’m commenting on how Facebook and Google have shared their visions today. Facebook knows how to adapt and respond, and social VR may not match how Zuckerberg explained it today. For instance, I believe social VR will include rich gaming and entertainment experiences even though Facebook has characterized gaming as a precurser to social VR.
Meanwhile, VR is expected to be a $30 billion market by 2020. One way or another, Facebook and Google will own a big chunk of it.