Facebook shocked the tech world last March by diving into virtual reality with the $2 billion acquisition of a niche start-up called Oculus VR. Funded initially through a 2012 Kickstarter campaign, Oculus created a slick high-end headset called the Rift that gave game developers—and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—immersive viewing like nothing they'd ever experienced.
Despite the hype, consumers have yet to see a gaming device from Oculus. When they do, it will likely cost hundreds of dollars and require some technical know-how to operate.
Google, meanwhile, is sending a very different message about VR: It's ready, it's affordable and it's for everyone.
Google's product, unveiled at its developer conference in June, is called Cardboard, and it's exactly that. The concept is shockingly simple. With an Android phone and a few bucks for materials (cardboard, lenses, a magnet, a rubber band and velcro), virtual reality is available to the masses, right now.
"Where we are in the whole VR space, consumers need a Model T Ford, they don't need a Lamborghini," said Patrick Buckley, co-founder of DODOcase, a San Francisco-based company that got its start making iPad cases in 2010 and now sells Cardboard headsets. "There are 2 billion smartphones in the world that are basically VR devices, and consumers don't realize it."
(EMarketer predicts the number of smartphone users will climb to 2.2 billion in 2016 from 1.9 billion this year.)
There's palpable excitement brimming among a vocal VR community that's been longing for the day when passion projects could become viable businesses. From builders of stereoscopic panoramic cameras and motion controllers on the hardware side to developers of applications for virtually watching concerts, visiting museums, teaching remotely and storytelling, more techies are rallying around Google's Cardboard.
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To push things along, Google published the hardware specs for building a headset as well as a software development kit for app creators. The Mountain View, California-based company also readied some of its own services for VR viewing. Popular YouTube videos can be seen as if in a movie theater, Google Earth gives the feeling of flying through space and Photo Sphere lets users look at 360-degree picture streams created on their phones.
It's already gaining significant traction. In December, six months after the introduction, Google said that more than 500,000 Cardboard headsets were in users' hands.
Google, incidentally, is not the main manufacturer, leaving that task to others. DODOcase, which makes cases for mobile devices, jumped on the opportunity right away, and has sold more than 125,000 viewers at up to $25 a piece. Another, Knoxlabs, started by an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, is making similarly priced cardboard headsets, and has sold around 10,000 units. Knoxlabs also has an aluminium viewer that will go on sale for $45 this week.