How Google Will Use VR to Displace iPhone


YouTube is moving aggressively to host virtual reality content on their service, and folks are struggling to understand why since few people are equipped to view it. You still can’t buy a set of high-end VR glasses from anyone, though they are due in market in a few weeks.   However, Android phones are the only phones that support VR at the moment, and for those that want to view VR they are currently the only game in town.  And VR is something iPhones don’t yet, and may never, do.  

Let’s talk about how Google is going to use VR as a weapon against Apple. 

The Power of VR

Virtual Reality puts you in the middle of whatever it is you are viewing and, done right, it can be a very compelling experience.  Recall when the iPad came out one of the things that seemed to attract people to the product was a star app, which could – when you aimed the iPad’s camera at the sky – identify the constellations.  It did initially help sell iPads but it didn’t sustain because most folks really didn’t care that much about looking at a bunch of stars that hadn’t changed in thousands of years.   In short, as a sport, constellation races are actually less exciting than watching snail races.  

VR has the initial ‘wow’ factor of the constellation app but much like any video centric technology it should be far more sustaining.  Google Cardboard, which really was the first effort to turn a high quality Android phone into a VR player, is considered not only the lowest cost VR solution but some think it is better than many more expensive offerings.  

The headset costs a whopping $11 on Amazon.   You can get it in black for $2 more.   That’s one hell of a lot cheaper than an iPad was.  

The Problem with VR

We’ve mostly focused on games initially but they require unique controllers, a lot of power to render a realistic VR 3D scene, and have a nasty tendency to make you motion sick.  

The motion sickness is generally tied to the game doing something that should have you feeling movement but, since you aren’t moving, your inner ear freaks out and suddenly you wish you’d taken Dramamine.

That’s why most of us that move to VR for gaming will likely end up using far more expensive headsets like Oculus Rift that promise a better gaming experience and where a lot more work has gone into addressing the motion sickness problem.  But these approach $1,000 and require a PC that is likely far more powerful than the one you currently have, making the cost of entry prohibitive. 

The other problem is that right now there is an extreme shortage of VR content, particularly good VR content and without that content few will be willing to pay the thousands for one of these high end solutions.  

Video to the Rescue

Video has a number of advantages.  First, there is no rendering on the device so it isn’t processor intensive, it will require decent bandwidth because the file size is large, but given you need to use VR sitting down chances are the user will have a decent Wi-Fi connection.  Second it is comparatively easy to create.  You just drop a VR camera at the venue and connect it to the Internet via a moderately high speed link and you are in business.   Concerts in particular are easy because you don’t have to do 360 degrees. The need to view only 180 degrees of the stage cuts down massively on the size of the video stream.  

Coupled with a good set of headphones, concerts are also the best way to get to an almost real experience because the user is generally seated, you don’t need wind, water, smells or other affects you notice are missing from games, and the image is relatively stable so no need for sea sickness medicine.  And initially, Google is rolling this as a light service so you don’t need special audio or 3D which, will keep the file size and hardware requirements down. 

It is more like personal IMAX. In fact, IMAX content will likely find its way onto these VR glasses shortly and, done right, (and it isn’t that hard to do it right) the resulting experience not only can take your breath away but you get a ton more variety than we ever got with that iPad stars app.  

Wrapping Up: Killing the iPhone

At the heart of this appears to be a desire to use VR to showcase just how antiquated the iPhone is because the iPhone doesn’t do VR.   That doesn’t mean it couldn’t but Apple clearly isn’t thinking that VR will be big on phones and so hasn’t made that bet.  What Google is betting on is that folks will get the VR experience on an Android phone, try to get it on an iPhone and some significant number will switch so they can have this experience. And, if VR hits as big as many think, suddenly Google does to Apple on phones what Microsoft did to Apple on PCs in the 1990s.  

I’m not saying this will happen, and it clearly depends on VR being big, but the strategy is sound and the idea of using YouTube as a lever isn’t that different than how Apple used iTunes to establish the iPhone in the first place. 

In any case, if you have an Android phone that will do VR you’ll be one of the first to lord in over your iPhone friends that you have something better than they have.   

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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