Google pushes further into world of virtual reality

New smartphone headset is expected to be similar to Samsung’s Gear VR

Google is developing a new virtual-reality headset for smartphones, and adding extra support for the technology to its Android operating system, as it challenges Facebook's Oculus for an early lead in Silicon Valley's latest platform war.

The new headset will be a successor to Cardboard, the cheap-and-cheerful mobile VR viewer that Google launched in 2014, and will feature better sensors, lenses and a more solid plastic casing, according to people familiar with its plans. The smartphone-based device will be similar to the Gear VR, a collaboration between Samsung and Oculus that went on sale to consumers late last year.

Google is expected to release its rival headset, alongside new Android VR technology, this year. Like Cardboard and Gear VR, the new headset will use an existing smartphone, slotted into the device, for its display and most of its processing power.

Google Cardboard relies solely on sensors already built into modern smartphones to detect the position of a user's head, while Gear VR is more sturdily built and features extra motion sensors. The updated Google headset will be compatible with a much broader range of Android devices than Gear VR, which only works with a handful of recent Samsung Galaxy smartphone models, as the Alphabet unit tries to bring the technology to a wider audience.

New software

Google is hoping to improve the quality of the mobile VR viewing experience by embedding new software directly into its Android smartphone operating system, rather than relying only on a traditional app as it does with Cardboard today. One issue with many current smartphone-based VR viewers is that users can feel dizzy or nauseous. This is because the virtual images displayed can lag slightly behind the user’s head movements in the real world, known as latency.

Having shipped more than 5 million units to date, Cardboard has been far more successful than Google expected when it launched the low-cost goggles in 2014. By improving resolution and latency, the combination of better Android software and the new headset will allow viewers to spend longer in VR and enable developers to create more sophisticated apps.

Sundar Pichai, Google's chief executive, said last week that Cardboard was "just the first step" in its VR efforts. "Beyond these early efforts, you'll see a lot more from us and our partners in 2016," Mr Pichai said on an earnings call for Google's parent company, Alphabet.

- (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)

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