Google I/O 2016

Why Google will not announce a VR headset at Google I/O 2016

Google might sell a partner’s virtual reality headset, but predictions that the company will build one are misguided

Why Google will not announce a VR headset at Google I/O 2016
Attendees watch virtual reality content in Gear VR headsets at a Samsung event in Barcelona on Feb. 21, 2016. Credit: Facebook

Rumors are flying that Google will announce a virtual reality (VR) headset this week at the company’s annual software developer conference Google I/O. The rumors sound ridiculous to me. Here’s why.

Today, the Verge and Android Police sparked more speculation based on a VR category showing up on the seller’s Google Play console and a year-old Wall Street Journal story that Google was working on a VR headset. Well, not exactly, but let’s take a minute, cut through the hype and think through this rationally.

+More on Network World: Google I/O 2016: 9 predictions about new products Google will announce+

The constraints on VR growth is the capacity to create new content. It’s really hard. Most creative companies building games and creative VR experiences have turned to authoring tools such as Unity and Steam and Unreal. Everyone in the headset business—HTC Vive, Oculus, Sony, Samsung and the 50 headset manufacturers that Jesse Schell, Carnegie Mellon faculty member and CEO of game developer Schell Games, predicts will be announced at the Consumer Electronics Show next January.

While authoring tools is an over-simplification because the tools account for rendering characters, landscapes, animation and Newtonian physics controlling the interactions between characters and objects, it’s a useful analogy for explaining VR content creation.

The role of VR authoring tools

VR authoring tools, also called game engines, abstract software developers from programming every animated character, setting and action, which would otherwise be so cost-prohibitive to kill the nascent VR industry. The tools also provide collaboration and coordination between the writers, designers and graphic artists who, with the developer, create a game or other type of VR experience.

Without the authoring tools—many of which are often also cross-platform tools building for the Vive, Oculus, Sony and Samsung headsets—developers would have to build their VR experience in OpenGL, an open-source library for high-performance graphics. Building a game or other VR experience in OpenGL is limited on every scale. It’s really hard to program using OpenGL, and not many software developers know it.

If Google were to introduce a VR headset, it would have to be compatible with all of the publishing tools, making it impossible to leverage its technological prowess to differentiate its product from competitors’. So, if Google does introduce a headset, it will be a partner’s headset—such as the HTC Vive—just like Google sells Android smartphones built by HTC or Huawei.

The bottom line: Google would never enter a cutthroat hardware business like VR headsets. Nevertheless, the company is very interested in VR and augmented reality (AR). One can imagine Google’s interests fall into three categories:

  • Project Tango AR applied to indoor mapping and other applications when apps need to understand the three-dimensional world that can be monetized through Google Maps and other products.
  • Android as a VR platform used by VR headset manufacturers that can be monetized through the Play Store.
  • Android real-time streamed VR experiences that can put a person on a field or in a remote meeting with a realistic sense of presence that can be monetized with YouTube.

The WSJ was correct in one sense. Google is working on AR- and VR-related technologies. The biggest three are VR streaming at Youtube, the Vulcan high-performance 3D graphics and compute API, and Project Tango.

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