Going into 2016, Facebook Inc (FB) was the clear leader in the world of virtual reality. Oculus, which Facebook purchased for $2 billion in 2014, will be releasing its long-awaited, mass-produced Oculus Rift VR headset in March.
To be clear, FB is still the top dog in virtual reality 13 days into the New Year. It has 400 people working in its Oculus division. What’s changed, however, is Alphabet Inc‘s (GOOG, GOOGL) commitment to VR: It has stepping up its game, and looks to be gunning for the current industry leader.
What’s the giveaway? Google CEO Sundar Pichai moved one of the company’s most valuable execs into a new role, creating a new division in the process. The division is not-so-subtly named Virtual Reality. And the exec in question is Clay Bavor, formerly the VP for product management.
Bavor’s former position called for him to oversee apps like Gmail, Drive and Docs, but he also worked intensely on Cardboard, GOOG’s first VR product.
“Certainly, inside Google, it’s (Cardboard) not viewed as an experiment,” said Bavor in an interview with The Verge last May.
GOOG’s Silent Ambitions in VR
It may sound like a joke that Google plans on seriously competing with FB in the realm of VR, and there’s good reason for that. Facebook has been extremely vocal about its virtual reality plans, which include a partnership with Microsoft (MSFT): The Oculus Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller, and will allow users to stream Xbox One games in VR.
GOOG’s ambitions, on the other hand, have far less PR behind them. It didn’t make a big fuss about Bavor’s recent change in job titles, and has kept relatively tight-lipped about its aspirations. Even a partnership with GoPro (GPRO) to bring 360-degree video to YouTube wasn’t hyped.
The GoPro collab isn’t just important for Google’s VR aspirations, it’s also a vital strategic initiative for YouTube, which is trying to fend off FB as it pushes to become a bigger player in video. Bottom line: It’s a meaningful project on two levels for GOOG, despite the lack of hype surrounding it.
Hype or no hype, there are other hints that GOOG is taking immersive technology more seriously, and perhaps working on something behind the scenes.
In his interview with The Verge last May, reporter Dieter Bohn concludes the segment by complimenting the contraption used to capture 360-degree video, a drone-like device with 16 GoPros facing outwards at the landscape in the shape of a circle. He calls it a “cool rig,” but notes that it requires a lot of processing power to stitch the 16 different video captures into one coherent, all-encompassing one.
Curious, Bohn asks Bavor: “Why not create a new type of super-camera that can just do it (capture 360-degree video) without having to do all this insane stitching power on the back-end … is that a thing that is even possible?”
“That’s a great idea,” says Bavor, coyly. “[It’s] one of the many things we’re thinking about.”
As of this writing, John Divine did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter at @divinebizkid or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.