Virtual reality’s early adopters got headsets but no killer app. Facebook, Google, and Sony have very different visions of what the medium has to offer and how to make people care.
Daydream View, Google’s new virtual-reality headset, is made of cloth. It uses a smartphone as a screen and looks like a fancy sleeping mask. “Cozy” was the word VR chief Clay Bavor used when he showed off the system in early October, urging consumers to think about being enveloped in a YouTube video or Google Street View map. The pitch is that VR can make daily app use cooler, and that the ecosystem for all that software should run a lot like, well, Android. As Bavor described it, many companies will make headsets and phones that run Google’s VR operating system, and the company will maintain the platform and make VR versions of its most popular apps.
Google isn’t the only company trying to remake the nascent VR business in the image of one it already dominates. Two days after Bavor’s presentation, at a developer conference for Facebook’s Oculus headsets, Mark Zuckerberg spent much of his time on a demo of a VR chat room, small talk between real people via digital avatars. VR’s primary use, he said, will be computerized socializing.
The following week, Sony began selling the PS VR headset, designed as an accessory to make games on its PlayStation consoles more intense. Sony’s vision for VR is conservative. “Gaming is where our wheelhouse is,” says Shawn Layden, president of Sony Interactive Entertainment America. “One plays to one’s strength.”
These diverging visions can coexist for the present, because the VR field has no leader, even now that most of the big-name commercial headsets are on sale. Heading into 2017, there isn’t a clear answer to the basic question of what, exactly, VR technology is for. The best hardware—Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive—is expensive and cumbersome, requiring users to tether themselves to powerful computers with cords and set up external cameras to track their movements. Software for these systems tends toward cool experiments that quickly lose their novelty.
The biggest early sales hit is the Samsung Gear VR, a $99 headset co-developed with Oculus that uses Samsung smartphones as VR screens to play games and run entertainment apps. SuperData Research estimates that Samsung will sell 2.3 million headsets by yearend, about triple the combined sales of the Rift and Vive, and that Sony will quickly overtake it during the holiday shopping season.
Google’s ability to integrate the Gear-like Daydream with Android gives it the strongest chance to shape VR in its image, says Tom Mainelli, an analyst at researcher IDC. Given Android’s ubiquity and appeal to developers, “I would consider them the odds-on favorite,” he says. All midrange Android phones should be able to work with Daydream in two years, according to Google’s Bavor, and soon his team should be able to take advantage of the sensors in pricier smartphones to track user movements and make the Daydream feel more high-end.
As Facebook doubles its $250 million investment in Oculus software development, it’s also trying to make its VR hardware more accessible. At the developer conference, Zuckerberg showed off a demo of an Oculus headset that didn’t require an external computer or camera. “Google is starting low, and Oculus or HTC is starting higher,” says Drew Oetting, who was a partner at venture firm Formation 8 when it made an early investment in Oculus. “Which one converges to the center faster?”