With Facebook set to report its progress to Wall Street, Google presented its own state of virtual reality in a blog post yesterday, crowing about the success of its virtual reality viewer, Google Cardboard. Google made a strong case that it has delivered virtual reality to the world.
And, reading between the lines, Google very obviously implied, "while the world awaits Facebook's Oculus Rift to ship."
Cardboard and Oculus aren't comparable. Cardboard, a virtual reality visor that houses an iPhone or Android smartphone, costs $5 to $20. Oculus Rift is a powerful, room-scale VR headset that costs $600 and must be tethered to an up-to-date computer, which for most users will mean a total investment of $1,200.
Google's numbers back its claims of success. Over 5 million cardboard viewers have shipped, including 1 million that the New York Times sent to its print subscribers in November. Cardboard is used in a variety of settings, from virtual school outings to advertising. Virtual reality advertising exec Craig Dalton summed up Cardboard in Adweek by saying, "think beyond Oculus, get to the masses."
Mark Zuckerberg described a very different market for Oculus Rift in last night's conference call with Wall Street analyst (via Seeking Alpha's transcript):
"It's going to be gaming for the beginning. That's the initial market. There are about – I think it's around 250 million people who have Xboxes, PlayStation, or Wiis. That's the initial market of folks who we think are going to be most interested from the early VR experiences, especially at some of the higher price points."
Zuckerberg describes a very different consumer who is harder to reach at a much higher price point. Success depends on game studios creating immersive VR games. Fortunately, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive room-scale VR systems have created a lot of enthusiasm among game developers.
Cardboard is meant for consuming bite-sized portions of virtual reality. Otherwise, an unexperienced user could develop motion sickness upon their first experience with VR. The Oculus Rift's 90MHz frame rate and consistently low sub-20ms latency is designed for extended comfortable viewing in immersive experiences that have enticed game developers.
I can attest to the convincing reality created by room-scale VR. When I was immersed in a prerelease and unannounced game delivered through a room-scale virtual reality headset, I actually leapt for a virtual elevator to escape virtual sniper bullets. Had my friend Curt not anticipated my confused senses and caught me mid-leap, I would have ripped out the cable tethering me to a PC and crashed goggles-first into the wall.
Oculus awes developers, gamers, and makers. But Google's cardboard is delivering most people's first virtual reality experiences. And Google has ready content delivery platforms, on both YouTube and the Google Play store. Both Facebook and Google seem to share the same long-term view that VR will stretch beyond gaming and entertainment to become the next form of human communications.
Google isn't resting on its Cardboard success. Clay Bavor, formerly VP of Google's app business, has been appointed to head a dedicated VR business unit. Google's Advanced Technology and Projects Group, run by former DARPA chief Regina Dugan, developed the virtual reality content creation know-how by creating 360-degree content, including a movie filmed with customer cameras at the direction of Justin Lin, director of the Fast and Furious movie franchise.
Google has a great story about scaling virtual reality to help advertisers, game makers, educators, film makers, and other yet-to-be-imagined virtual reality content creators. This early advantage could be lost, though, to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive's hardware technology lead.
It's very early, though. Facebook won't release any quantitative measure of its VR programs, while Google, a company that typically measures its performance on a scale of billions, measures its VR success in hundreds of thousands and millions.