At first glance, Google’s decision to expand its virtual reality efforts to Apple’s iPhone might seem curious. But let the idea sink in, and it starts to make a whole lot of sense.
While it has been possible to jury rig a VR experience on the iPhone using Google (GOOG) Cardboard, not a lot of developers have done so thus far.
But Google’s decision late Wednesday to publish a Cardboard software developer kit (SDK) with tools for iOS meant to streamline things for developers could change that.
Cardboard hasn’t gotten quite the level of media attention that has been focused on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Samsung’s (SSNLF) Gear VR (a joint venture with Facebook-owned Oculus). Google’s VR headset is literally made of cardboard. While it officially carries a price tag of $15, it’s pretty easy to get your hands on a set for free.
Many VR content providers even give out Cardboard units for free. For example, the New York Times gave away 1.3 million of the units to subscribers last November as part of the launch the paper’s VR division.
But many experts agree that mobile VR is the technology’s best chance for widespread distribution—especially in the early days. With lower-priced headsets (Gear VR is just $99 versus $600 for an Oculus Rift) and by enabling people to experience virtual reality through a device they already own and understand, VR companies stand a better chance to capturing market share.
“They offer a very limited quality experience but can give people the idea in a short amount of time of something different,” says John Taylor of Arcadia Research. “While there are many shortcomings of this approach, the price is right, development costs can be controlled, and a completely unique experience can be provided.”
Samsung gets this and has been giving out Gear VR headsets with the purchase of its new Galaxy S7 phones. But by bringing iOS devices into the fold, Google’s upping the stakes. Apple (AAPL), meanwhile, has shown no public interest in virtual reality, which opened the door for Google.
Approximately 98.4% of the mobile phone market is controlled by Android and iOS, according to Gartner. iPhone sales are slowing (due in part to tough comparisons), but the market research firm expects that to rebound as iPhone 6 users prepare for upgrades, perhaps with the expected iPhone 7 later this year.
By bringing Cardboard compatibility to iOS, Google can seed the market. That could come in especially handy later this year when Google is expected to roll out an upgraded plastic version of its VR headset. Likely to still cost less than Gear VR but possibly bring some revenue to Google, the ability to use this plastic “Cardboard” on both leading smartphone operating systems could make it more appealing.
In the long term, that could give Google the victory over Facebook (FB) it failed to achieve in the social media space.