Not to be outdone by Facebook ( FB ), Samsung ( SSNLF) or (reportedly) Apple ( AAPL ), Alphabet ( GOOGL , GOOG ) is taking things up a notch with its virtual reality product development, known as Google VR.
The next-generation Google VR device the company is developing will be a serious step-up from its current folded-cardboard apparatus that's affixed to a smartphone running compatible apps, and instead will be built from the ground up to be its own, self-contained virtual reality tool that - and this is big - doesn't require a smartphone to work.
And to be clear, the planned Google VR won't be operated by a tethered or wirelessly connected or a game console or PC either. It will be an entirely stand-alone piece of hardware, distinguishing it from other devices currently on the market or competing devices nearing their launch. (Yep, that was pointed right at the Oculus Rift, which is scheduled to hit the market in late March .)
Is it a technology anybody really needs? Nope. Will it make a significant contribution to boosting the value of Google stock ? Not likely … at least not anytime soon. Is it something that's going to be really cool because Google doesn't do it if it can't do it well? Definitely.
Virtual Reality Is an Increasingly Crowded Space
In the grand scheme of things, Google is already behind on the virtual reality front. To date, its only VR product - and that's a generous use of the term "product" in this case - is a piece of cardboard folded into a shape that acts more or less like a vintage ViewMaster (which probably just exposed my age), with the only difference being that the image was produced on a smartphone screen rather than a reel of static slides.
Other companies have already been offering similar-but-better devices. For instance, the Samsung Gear VR apparatus is a plastic and metal device that wraps around the user's entire head to allow hands-free use of the device. It still requires a smartphone to use - a Galaxy, to be specific - but it's infinitely more comfortable and functional than the cardboard Google VR tool. Of course, for $99, you'd expect a little more from Gear VR than cardboard.
The much-ballyhooed Oculus Rift, now owned and being developed by Facebook, is at the other end of the consumer-priced spectrum, with a sticker price of $599.
It may be worth the price for folks who love the idea of virtual reality. The Rift includes a headset for a fully immersive experience complete with stereoscopic sounds and sensors installed solely to detect the wearer's movement. That fact that it requires a high-speed PC to operate the hardware suggests Oculus has some pretty dazzling stuff in store.
Even beyond the immediate horizon, however, Alphabet has a lot of catching up to do. Apple is rumored to have been developing some sort of VR product for quite some time . It has already unveiled a toy-ish ViewMaster that works with iPhones at its online store . But, Apple being Apple, it's not going to be one-upped by the likes of Facebook or Samsung.
Can Google VR Catch Up?
In light of what's already on the market and what soon will be, it would be easy to assume the die will be cast by the time the next Google VR technology - great as it may be - reaches the market. Owners of Google stock may not want to throw in the towel just yet, however.
While the recent buzz has been Google's standalone VR device, that's a longer-term project, and deservedly so. Yet there's an interim product planned for "in the meantime" that just might draw a big crowd of users that can easily be upgraded to the higher-end device once it's finally unveiled.
The next-generation Google VR device is unnamed so far, but it's alleged to be very akin to the Samsung Gear VR virtual reality device in that it still requires a separate smartphone, but fits comfortably, like goggles. It will also be compatible with a wide array of Android devices ; it should function particularly well with newer Android devices, which will have built-in support for VR technology. Some suspect this Google VR headset could be unveiled at this year's annual I/O conference, scheduled to take place in May .
As for the self-contained, stand-alone virtual reality unit, nobody has ventured a guess as to when it may make its debut, or what it may cost when it does launch. Given the pace of the race though, 2017 may be a possible launch date, though a price point of more than $1,000 could be in the cards.
Remember, the entire computer controlling the experience will have to be worn on the user's head. Something powerful enough but light enough to be feasible on someone's head won't be cheap to manufacture.
Of course, the one good thing about any Google VR effort is that unlike most of its competitors, Alphabet doesn't have to make any real money by selling the devices. Alphabet has gotten real good at making its money on the back end, by selling games, movies, and apps.
Still, even with the top technology in the arena, Google VR isn't going to light a fire under Google stock anytime in the foreseeable future. It's still more of a toy and a hobby than a must-have tool. Give it (and developers) time, though, and that could change.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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