Google, Facebook racing for virtual reality launch

gear vr

The Gear VR virtual reality headset works along with the Note 4 smartphone.

Credit: Samsung

When it comes to virtual reality, the game is on.

And Google and Facebook are competing hard to beat each other to the punch with their own virtual reality offering.

"The company that gets here first, providing a rich development environment, will be able to set the standards that others will have to use," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "Both Google and Facebook are keenly interested in being the one that establishes the first viable platform. Assuming it's a highly functional, and at least somewhat open, platform, the owner of that first platform controls how it develops over time. It'll be a great position to be in."

Just last month, Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox publicly said that the social network is working to develop virtual reality software. Without laying out any specifics, he said the company is focused on making apps that will enable users to create their own virtual reality content.

Cox' statement, made at the Code/Media 2015 conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif., stirred up a lot of online excitement.

In another interview at the time, Olds said if Facebook can make this virtual reality software work, it could revolutionize the way people work and play online.

Then things heated up when a Wall Street Journal report hit late last week noting unnamed sources who said Google is building an Android-based operating system for virtual reality programs.

According to the report, "tens of engineers" are working on the software that would be made freely available.

Google has not yet responded to a request for confirmation.

If the report is accurate, though, that would mean that Google and Facebook -- once again -- are pitted in a race.

The two Internet giants are accustomed to battling it out.

Going after as many users as they can accumulate, the two companies compete for online eyeballs and advertising, as well as in the social networking space with Facebook easily dominating Google+.

Now, they're in a sprint to be the first to hit the virtual reality market.

"Getting in early means a technology can establish a beachhead, get their products in the hands of customers, and then build upon that early presence in the market," said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner. "The largest consumer platforms and technology companies stand the most to loose if they don't come out early."

And it's going to be an important market, with some analysts seeing virtual reality shaping the way we'll entertain ourselves, as well as the way we conduct business in the near future.

"It is the future of entertainment," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "Virtual reality puts you physically in the action. Whether we are talking movies, concerts, or games, it provides an opportunity for engagement that simply can't be matched with traditional media."

For the enterprise, virtual reality might mean some business travel is replaced by tele-meetings where people feel like they are sitting beside their co-workers or clients, instead of sitting in their actual offices. Sales people could use virtual reality to walk potential clients through simulated experiences, while realtors could walk buyers through virtual homes or office buildings.

"It could revolutionize remote education and telemedicine, for instance," said Enderle. "Virtual reality would be a powerful ad revenue generating engine, placing ads in places where you couldn't avoid them. And when it comes to social, you could allow people to remotely engage intimately in a virtual world of their choosing. The next Facebook could be a virtual reality firm."

Olds noted that he doesn't expect to see many other major players go after the virtual reality market right off, but it will be critical for Google and Facebook to make this work for them.

"What if virtual reality takes off and neither one of them are players?," he asked. "This would mean users are plugged into their computers for long periods of time, but not using Facebook or Google, which would be a very bad thing for both companies.

"If virtual reality is going to be big, then both Google and Facebook believe they need to be at the vanguard of it," added Olds.

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