First Facebook, now Google wants to make virtual reality more social

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Playing catch-up with Facebook Inc., Google plans to make virtual reality and augmented reality more of a social experience in its next generation of headsets.

The tech giant, which announced plans for its first standalone VR headsets Wednesday at its three-day I/O conference for developers, today unveiled a number of social features that will come in the new “Euphrates” release of Daydream VR and AR platform later this year.

For one, people using the headsets will be able to share screenshots and short videos of their experiences inside VR on Facebook and messaging apps. There will also be a new capability to use Google’s Cast technology to beam the screen live to a Chromecast-equipped television set so more people can see what you’re experiencing.

“It was one of the top-requested features,” said Mike Jazayeri, director of product management for Google VR. “It changed individual VR experiences to shared ones.”

YouTube, the video sharing site that Google has sometimes attempted to position as a social network of sorts, also plans support for social “watch parties” later this year, so up to three users can simultaneously watch 360-degree videos (pictured). Moreover, YouTube will be offering shared rooms where users can voice chat in VR, a bit similar to Oculus Rooms and Parties introduced in December that enable people to hang out and watch videos in a virtual room.

The overall goal, said Clay Bavor, Google’s vice president for VR and AR, is to make computing more natural, just as the command line and graphical user interface each brought computing to new generations of people by reducing friction. “They enable computing to work more like we do,” Bavor said.

The new features build upon other more social features Google’s VR system has enabled. Expeditions VR, for instance, has helped create more than 600 shared educational experiences such as exploring coral reefs or visiting the International Space Station. Google also talked about a new AR version of Expeditions that allows kids in a classroom to see virtual objects and for the teacher to point out various aspects of the object, from the eye of a hurricane to a strand of DNA.

Although VR games and other experiences have been largely solitary to date, a social component eventually may prove important in making the technology accessible and appealing to the masses.

“When I first saw Daydream last year, one of the first things I asked is how are you going to make this more social?” said Brian Blau, research vice president at Gartner Inc. “So it’s nice to see some of these features come.”

At the same time, their importance still pales next to more immediate concerns, such as the need for more powerful and comfortable headsets, he said. “It’s going to take a lot to make VR and AR robust enough for mass-market use,” he said. “But it is exactly these kinds of small features that are going to develop over time into something significant.”

On the competitive front, however, Google is hardly first here, and it’s not clear it can lead the way to a more social VR future. “Sounds a bit like catch-up, maintaining parity with Facebook,” said Julie Ask, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research Inc. “Facebook showed some pretty kick-ass social media experiences with AR/VR at F8,” its own recent developer conference.

Indeed, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg pitched AR in particular as the next great communications platform, and Facebook already owns two of the dominant messaging platforms, its own Messenger and WhatsApp. “This is going to be a really important technology that changes how we use our phones and eventually all of technology,” Zuckerberg said at F8.

It’s important for Google to make a splash in VR if, as most experts think, more people are eventually going to spend more time there. “Google needs to own consumer time (and data) to monetize it directly or indirectly,” Ask said.

Photo: Google