Samsung's Gear VR. Facebook's Oculus Rift. HTC's Vive. The three top dogs are all set to fight it out and even smaller VR manufacturers are starting to achieve big boy status. In the midst of all this, Google is still clinging to the Cardboard standard and ultra-accessible, smartphone-dependent headset that started it all. For now, that is. Alphabet is giving just about every indication in the book except outright declaring it that they're about to kick their VR efforts into high gear. Whether that means taking the fight to the big boys and their high-end gear, making their own low-end gear massively more appealing or revolutionizing what high-end is in the VR space, nobody knows as yet.
What people do know so far is that Alphabet recently announced a separate division just for VR, to be headed by none other than Clay Bavor. An obscenely massive facility was given its grand opening in the Kitchener area of Canada on the same day that particular wing of Google announced a bigger VR focus. Cardboard has been picking up tweaks and improvements over the years on a strictly here-and-there basis, but has thus far failed to gain the hardcore appeal that PC-dependent and independent headsets have enjoyed.
Of course, Cardboard's "not being taken seriously" woes are in part due to smartphones, the natural backbone of cardboard, just not being there yet. Even this writer's Nexus 6, with its 2560 x 1440 resolution throwing down an eye-pleasing 493 pixels per inch, shows some raw pixel when used with Cardboard. This means only the most hardcore, high-end handsets right now are even viable for a "big-boy" VR experience to match the likes of Oculus Rift, but then there's the issue of what's under the hood. Smartphone hardware is going to have a hard time pushing future VR applications, as indicated by the staggering price for the Oculus Rift and its fairly high system requirements for the host PC. On top of that, software optimization for Google's Cardboard SDK isn't exactly at the top of its game at the moment, although it is getting better and better.
The reason for the shift is quite simple, at its core; VR is the next frontier for consumer mindspace and advertising. Facebook recently unveiled a 3D video platform compatible with VR and anybody who says that SDK won't be used for advertising likely isn't terribly familiar with the internet as an industry. Ads on YouTube are already using device's gyroscopes in some cases, and just about any YouTube video can be given the Cardboard treatment. More immersive content means more engagement and more engagement means more effective ads that companies will likely be willing to pay more for. Since Google is, for the moment, painting themselves as the "VR for the masses" guys, every new feature they roll out will likely be eaten up with spoons – by millions. The implications of this are huge. In many ways, it's a renaissance of Google's core business just waiting to happen. They'll provide an extremely popular and valuable service for either nothing or next to nothing and the public will eat it and the accompanying ads up like a pack of wild dogs.
That exact mechanic, applied to the most advanced search engine crawler around at the time of its genesis, built the foundations of the current Alphabet empire. If VR is the huge new frontier everybody thinks it is, history will repeat itself and the only people surprised when Google comes out on top will be the big dogs they left in the dust by changing the game. Mind you, this could be completely and utterly wrong; Google could change up their strategy to play with the big boys and relegate Cardboard to their "low-end" segment. Even a move like that would yield significant gains, since they're getting into an emerging market on the ground floor. In any case, it looks like the core business for the Google of old is about to make a revival and, if the big to-do over the VR space is any indication, business will be booming.