Google on Tuesday introduced a $79 virtual-reality headset called View along with Pixel, a smartphone that can act as a companion device. The VR goggles, which will be available in November, are made of clothinglike fabric instead of hard plastic to give it a more "soft and cozy" feel, Google says.
Virtual-reality headsets—a nascent product space, no doubt—have so far been expensive and clunky to wear. Oculus Rift, the most famous VR product, costs around $600 and at first blush looks like it could be used for scuba diving as easily as home entertainment. Google's own Cardboard device, while only costing $15, always appeared hampered by the idea of putting, well, cardboard against one's face. Therefore, the company is offering an alternative that won't break the bank and seems comfortable enough to wear in the living room for reasonable periods of time.
We asked agency leads to predict what Google's soft-and-cozy approach could mean for the larger virtual-reality space.
"This strategy is a transitional one," said Ricardo Diaz, executive director of digital at Omelet. "It is a step in the right direction, but I feel the form factor of all VR headsets will have a radical evolution in the next few years."
Ian Schafer, founder and chairman at Deep Focus, suggested the product's features may not trigger much buzz.
"With Google View, they've aimed to appeal to aesthetics first—wise, since there are no significant technological developments with View over other headsets other than positioning it as a perfect fit for Pixel with a companion remote," Schafer said. He added, "Google has probably learned some hard lessons about physical product design over the years."
Tom Wright, founder of VR marketing startup Tactic, was markedly more optimistic (not to mention technical) in his early assessment, pointing to Google's 2-year-old design software language, Material Design, as a key precursor to the View headset. (Material Design is essentially like a digital canvas that can be continually stretched.)
"With View, Google has created a piece of hardware that bridges the utility of a feature-packed, mobile headset with the design aesthetic of a wearable that someone would actually wear, effectively applying their Material Design guidelines to hardware," Wright said. "[It's] a well-made and high-functioning device … that looks like you bought it at some fantastic hybrid of Barney's and Etsy. "
Nancy Bennett, chief content officer at VR-focused Two Bit Circus, lauded Google View's remote-control feature, which lets users interact with content in a fashion not currently possible with Google Cardboard or rival Samung's Gear VR.
"Along with upgrades to the quality and types of experiences one can have within the Google VR ecosystem," Bennett said, "[it furthers] the work they have done to provide VR for the masses."
Of course, due to the nature of their businesses, Wright and Bennett have financial reasons to cheerlead any development that could push VR into the mainstream. But Josh Goldblum, CEO of Bluecadet, a Philadelphia agency with many museum clients like MOMA, shares their enthusiasm.
"Personally, I think the device will kill," Goldblum said. "The price point is aggressive; the design is made to travel, comfortable and unpretentious. It seems geared more towards basic entertainment than gaming or any aspirational and unproven applications of VR. It's design is more like a wool hat than an Xbox."
Can VR take aim at TV?
Does Google View have the potential to affect the behavior of linear TV viewers or the growing number of cord cutters? Every agency exec we interviewed concluded that VR wasn't really close to negatively impacting television or livestreaming. Daydream, Google View's content platform, will have as many as 50 third-party VR partnerships by the end of the year including content Hulu, HBO and The New York Times. (There's even a Harry Potter game thanks to a partnership with Warner Bros.)
"Content is where Google could win big in terms of competing with other VR platforms since it has these relationships with big content providers and a built-in distribution/discovery channel and audience via YouTube," said Rachel Pasqua, MEC's practice lead in its North American Connected Life division.
Pasqua continued, "So could it be an appealing alternative to linear and streaming TV? Sure. A strong alternative? That remains to be seen, especially. We don't know yet just what kind of content will catch on it or if traditional narrative TV will be more appealing in a VR format. Does a viewer really want to experience a whole episode of Game of Thrones in VR mode? Will programming like reality TV be more successful? Or will VR call for a whole new kind of programming altogether?"
Stay tuned to find out, folks—virtually or otherwise.