Google is secretly working on a major virtual reality project, much bigger than previously thought, as part of efforts to take on Facebook, Microsoft and mobile handset makers in that technology.
The search giant is employing a number of engineers to focus exclusively on developing a specific version of the Android mobile OS to support VR applications, according to reports.
In VR, Google could be seen as a little off the pace, having only released a relatively basic viewing device called Cardboard. Facebook, which last year bought virtual reality firm Oculus for $2 billion, is many months into its work to develop VR-backed communications. Samsung has also teamed up with Oculus for a mobile version of the tech, and Sony has developed its own Morpheus headset. Elsewhere, Microsoft is well into developing a VR device linking the real world and simulated data.
Google is reportedly expected to put some significant resources behind VR as the revenue opportunities begin to clarify. It has invested heavily in other areas where it sees revenue potential, including smart contact lenses, technology to support people with Parkinson’s, balloon powered Internet for remote areas, and of course self driving cars.
For the VR-supporting version of Android, Google has so far employed dozens of engineers dedicated to initial work, according to the Wall Street Journal, which quotes unnamed staff working on the project. Crucially, in order to gain quick adoption, the system would be made freely available as with existing versions of Android, the report notes. Google has not officially commented on its plans.
The potential for selling to consumers and businesses is evident. For consumers, virtual reality could offer the ability to communicate much more immersively (one of Facebook’s initial aims in this area), as well as powering impressive video game, retail, cinematic and sports viewing experiences.
In business, there are clear opportunities for different industries. Surgeons could perform operations remotely and engineers could make repairs offsite. Manufacturing staff could produce goods outside of their own factory, controlling machines remotely while seeing the objects in front of them. The training applications are endless, too, especially for military and civil aviation flight simluations. In education, colleges and schools can provide a remote immersive experience, while media businesses could further increase the impact of news reports and entertainment.
Miya Knights, senior research analyst at IDC Retail Insights, tells Forbes that Google’s reported efforts could “add competition and drive speed of development” in the virtual reality market. Google could also have a development advantage given its search, mobile OS, mapping technology, geolocation-based navigation, and shopping services.
However, the benefits could still be some time off, and VR remains “an answer desperately looking for a question” as industries seek use cases, according to Spencer Izard, European head at the retail analyst house.
“VR would provide an ability for consumers at home or in stores where certain stock items are not available to see a product represented in a 3D form that allows the customer to better understand it,” he says. “However, that is a very specific use case and I would question whether it would see mainstream adoption by consumers.”
One area that could change adoption is the blending of two types of technology, a kind of augmented virtual reality, in which people wearing a VR headset see information and images overlaid on what is in front of them. Last year Google invested more than $500 million in Magic Leap, a company that is developing such a device.
With such technology, VR could be used to deliver Google-powered navigation, Knights explains, as well as “personalized and timely offers, physically showing nearby restaurants or stores a person might like, in their view as they shop.”
This article was written by Leo King from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.