Why Google is bullish on VR, AR

VR can transport you, allowing you to see a place and experience it, while AR brings computing into your world, allowing you to interact with digital information


Google virtual reality vice-president Clay Bavor reveals the company is working on stand-alone virtual reality gear as part of its mixed reality technology effort at the company’s annual developers conference in Mountain View, California, on 17 May. Photo: AFP
Google virtual reality vice-president Clay Bavor reveals the company is working on stand-alone virtual reality gear as part of its mixed reality technology effort at the company’s annual developers conference in Mountain View, California, on 17 May. Photo: AFP

Mountain View, California: It’s literally a “Day Dream” for Google Inc., which is very bullish on the prospects of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in the real world, despite competition from VR platforms such as Oculus from Facebook Inc., HoloLens from Microsoft Corp. and Vive from HTC Corp.

Both VR and AR enable us to experience computing more like we experience the real world, “making computing work more like we do”, according to Clay Bavor, vice-president, Virtual and Augmented Reality, at Google. VR can transport you, allowing you not only to just see a place but also experience what it’s like to be there, while AR brings computing into your world, allowing you to interact with digital information in your environment, according to Bavor.

“That’s why we’re making investments in the core technologies that enable VR and AR, and in platforms that make them accessible to more people,” he said, during the keynote at Google i/o here on Wednesday.

In October, Google launched its VR headset, dubbed ‘Daydream View’. Today, there are Daydream-ready phones (eight Daydream-ready phones and 100 Daydream apps) available for use, including the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+, which will be Daydream-ready with “a software update this summer, and LG’s next flagship phone, which will launch later this year”, said Bavor.

Next steps

Daydream will soon also support a new category of VR devices, said Bavor, adding, “We call them standalone VR headsets.” Standalone headsets do not require a phone or personal computer (PC). The hardware is optimized for VR, and features a new headset tracking technology called WorldSense. WorldSense enables positional tracking, meaning the headset tracks a user’s precise movements in space—and it does all this without any need to install external sensors.

Also read: Google I/O 2017: Google.ai launched in push towards an AI-first world

“We worked closely with Qualcomm to create a standalone headset reference design, which partners can use as a blueprint to build from,” said Bavor. HTC VIVE, a leader in the VR space, and Lenovo, a leader in mobile and computing, are both working on devices, with the first ones coming later this year.

Bavor also pointed out that Google is investing in Project Tango “for years as a core technology for both virtual and augmented reality”. With Tango, devices can track motion and understand distances and their position in the real world. For VR, Google has used a technology from Tango as the foundation of WorldSense. For AR, it can be used to enable smartphone AR experiences by placing digital objects in real spaces. The next phone with Tango technology will be the ASUS ZenFone AR, available this summer, said Bavor.

Tango is also one of the core technologies behind Google’s new Visual Positioning Service (VPS), which helps devices quickly and accurately understand their location indoors. While GPS is great for getting you to the storefront, said Bavor, “with VPS your device can direct you right to the item you’re looking for once inside”. Bavor cited the example of how VPS works in partner museums and select Lowe’s stores. “We think VPS will be powerful in a variety of scenarios. For instance, imagine how precise location enabled by VPS, combined with audio interfaces, could help visually-impaired people navigate through the world,” Bavor said.

Applications

Amit Singh, vice-president of business and operations, AR and VR, at Google, likens AR and VR to “the building blocks of the next step to computing”.

“VR takes you anywhere. AR brings things to you. These are two different sides of the coin. Along with computer vision, these technologies all form a part of, and are a continuum of, immersive technologies,” Singh said in an interview earlier this week.

He cited the example of Google Cardboard which the company launched in 2014. The idea was to bring it to all mobiles and allow for experiences on the mobile. “The idea is to go from a few minutes of immersion—like we did with Cardboard, which explains why it does not have a head strap—to much deeper immersion system for which you have do a lot to the underlying operating system (OS) up to the graphics stack, to screens, displays and so on. Then the applications sit on it,” Singh explained.

Last year at Google I/O, the company announced the VR mode in Android (Google’s mobile OS) to starting to build on its ecosystem—initially with high-end phones that lend themselves to VR to being VR-ready. “You will see many more smartphones that will be Daydream-ready, which is Google’s promise of high performance mobile VR,” Singh said.

Also read: Google takes another swing at reviving cheap Android phones

Making the mobile form factor VR-ready has been a great exciting challenge, according to Singh. For example, Google has built YouTube from the “ground up” for VR. “It is actually the top performing VR application on our platform because it has a lot of UGC (user-generated content),” Singh said. Another example is StreetView—built for taking you places.

Today, more than 10 million Cardboard viewers have shipped worldwide. There have been 160 million downloads of Cardboard apps on Google Play—and 30 of those apps have more than 1 million downloads, according to Singh.

“We think AR will happen more quickly on your phone,” said Singh, adding that Google is keen on developing these technologies as a platform. “We want to make capturing things easy. So we have been deeply investing in camera technology and built our own 360 degree cameras—with Yi (Yi Halo) technology and underneath is our camera technology called Jump that gives you the ability of stitching (Jump Assembler), rendering, and giving you back beautiful, stabilised videos in hours,” Singh said.

Concerns

Singh acknowledged, though, that just like “any early platform that is coming to life”, there are challenges. For one, currently only high-end smartphones with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens have it, but “we are working to address these issues”. Mobile, said Singh, makes that more possible but clearly desktops have advantages of immersion.

The industry, acknowledged Singh, needs more content to make VR useful beyond games and entertainment “even as we are making the capture side easy”. He cited the example of Google Expeditions—a VR experience for students but controlled and delivered by the teacher. The teachers are given tablets where these expeditions (about 500) are stored, which also acts as a router to create a local network since Wi-Fi signals may not be strong in schools. “Think of these expeditions as 360 panoramas with points of interests built in, and the teacher can turn the expedition on and off,” Singh said.

In his speech on Wednesday, Bavor also insisted that Google is “most excited” to apply Tango technologies in the classroom. More than two million students have taken virtual field trips with Expeditions using Cardboard till date, and Google plans to introduce AR lessons to schools through its Pioneer Program in a couple of months. “With Expeditions AR, students can gather around the Statue of David, a strand of DNA, or even a whirling Category 5 hurricane without leaving the classroom,” Bavor explained.

Each kit that comprises a phone, a Cardboard and tablet costs on average about $6,000-8,000. It is also a shared resource.

Other challenges, said Singh, include the need for established “standards in this space”.

Heather Bellini of Goldman Sachs Research expects virtual and augmented reality to become an $80 billion market by 2025. “We think (virtual and augmented reality have) the potential to transform how we interact with almost every industry today, and we think it will be equally transformative both from a consumer and an enterprise perspective,” said Bellini in a February 2016 note.

Netherlands-based research firm, Brabant Development Agency (BOM), believes that virtual and augmented reality developers have to show more focus and ambition to attract the capital needed to reach their full potential.

According to a market survey report it released on 10 May, 50% of the developers whose firms will require more financing in the future said they would need another round of more than €1 million. “In order to raise this level of investment, companies typically need to have the ambition to achieve at least €10 million in revenue within five years. However, the average developer in the survey expects his firm to generate “only” €1.3 million. This gap is a potential barrier to the further development of the industry as it might limit the ability of developers to raise growth capital,” the note said.

The note concluded, “VR/AR is here to stay and we see strong signs in our research that it will be serious business in 5 to 10 years. A key conclusion is that now is the time for potential users to start experimenting and explore their role in this rapidly evolving space.”

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