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Google Is Investing In 'Immersive Technology'


Google offered a glimpse of how it sees the future at its annual Developers Conference this week, and that future involves a lot of blending between the real world and the virtual one. The company is investing heavily in what it's now calling immersive technology. NPR's Laura Sydell has more.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Google's been the leader in getting the world acquainted with virtual reality. It's got that cheap, hand-assembled viewer called Cardboard that attaches to a smartphone. The company's going full throttle now and partnering with HTC and Lenovo on a standalone headset made of tougher stuff than Cardboard. Clay Bavor heads the division that developed it.

CLAY BAVOR: Unlike systems that you have to connect to a PC or where you take your smartphone and insert it into a VR headset, everything you need for VR is contained right in the headset itself.

SYDELL: Google is the first major company to release a standalone VR headset. Facebook's Oculus Rift and Sony VR have to be tethered to expensive computers or gaming consoles. Google's also beefing up its augmented reality technology. It announced what it's calling visual positioning service, or VPS. It will be incorporated into a new Asus smartphone. Bavor says, imagine you need to find an item in a very large store.

BAVOR: You go to Lowe's, and you need to find this, you know, very specific bolt. You can pull up the Lowe's app, do a search for it, and then, your phone will walk you step by step to the exact aisle and shelf where that bolt is.

SYDELL: Bavor says the company actually sees a continuum between its VR and AR technology. It's all part of a future where the virtual and real worlds blur. Google is calling it immersive computing.

BAVOR: Virtual reality can make you really feel transported somewhere else. Augmented reality can bring kind of digital information into your environment and make it really seem as if it's there in the real world.

SYDELL: There's a lot of competition among the big tech companies to advance these immersive technologies. Facebook, Microsoft and Sony are competitors, and Apple is likely to jump into the fray. But Google has some advantages, like its dominance in search. It's adding VR and AR capability to its Chrome browser. Greg Sterling is a contributing editor to Search Engine Land.

GREG STERLING: Because it's got hardware. It's got a massive consumer audience and brand, and it's got all this data and software expertise. And really, none of the other players have all those pieces.

SYDELL: An example of how this advantage works is that you could point your augmented reality-enabled phone at a restaurant, and a review would just pop up on the screen from Google search. But all Google's efforts may not be destined to succeed. Take that standalone VR headset. Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner, says the high-end users will spend money for the power of an Oculus Rift, and the low end may be happy inserting their smartphone into a pair of goggles.

BRIAN BLAU: Because you really have to want to be an extended VR user, if you will, if you're going to invest, you know, more than $500 into one of these systems.

SYDELL: And Google has had its failures. Its augmented reality glasses known as Google Glass were a total flop with consumers. Google's VR headset will be out by the end of the year, and so will its new augmented reality-capable smartphones - still no word on price. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUALIST INQUIRY'S "6AM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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