Google's 2019 I/O developer conference has key news on how Google Search and Lens are pushing into deeper phone uses for AR. But what about VR? In a year full of new VR headsets, including Facebook's Oculus Quest and the Valve Index, plus hardware from HP, Vive and Qualcomm on the horizon, Google's taking a different approach: shifting VR focus to apps and services while something else is being worked on in the wings.
"On the VR front, our focus right now is much more on services and the bright spots where we see VR being really useful," Google's VR/AR head, Clay Bavor, told CNET ahead of I/O. "Tilt Brush we announced is coming to Oculus Quest, which we're excited about. YouTube VR has more than a million VR videos on it, the largest repository of VR media, Owlchemy, which we own, makes Job Simulator and Vacation Simulator: VR gaming is promising."
This year, Google isn't releasing VR hardware. At least not yet, a big change from where things where in 2018 when Google launched a standalone VR headset with Lenovo and worked on dual-lens 180-degree VR pocket cameras. The year before, Google had an improved version of the phone-based Daydream View headset.
Google launching Tilt Brush for Oculus Quest, along with Owlchemy's Job Simulator, might be an indicator that for now Google's best VR hardware is made by Oculus. But that doesn't mean Google isn't working on something. What that something is remains to be seen.
"On the hardware devices side, we're much more in a mode of R&D and thoughtfully building the Lego bricks that we're going to need in order to snap together and make some really compelling experiences," Bavor explains. But in the meantime, for VR developers who still want to work in Daydream, Bavor sees last year's Lenovo Mirage Solo as the dev kit. Google's year-old VR hardware has some similarities to the new Oculus Quest, with the same Qualcomm chip and 6-degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) headset tracking via built-in cameras and sensors. "We've been pushing the Mirage Solo to be really useful to developers," he says, referring to a 6DoF controller dev kit made available last year, and an added pass-through mode using the cameras for some AR experimentation.
Future hardware, according to Bavor, may focus on utility, "to create the types of helpful experiences that we're showing on the smartphone, in newer and different form factors."
But will that next device be VR, mixed reality, or something else? "On the hardware and devices side, again, I characterize the phase we're in as deep R&D, focused on building the critical Lego bricks behind closed doors. If you can dream it, we probably have a prototype of it somewhere in one of our labs."