Google dives into virtual reality with new division and new boss

Company positions top product exec, Clay Bavor, to fight Facebook’s virtual reality moves

Google Glass
Google Glass

Alphabet Inc.'s Google is focusing on virtual reality, creating a new division to work on the technology and moving the head of its product management team to run the new effort.

Clay Bavor, the vice president of product at Google since 2005, now has taken on the title of vice president of virtual reality, according to Bavor's Twitter profile.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bavor is no stranger to taking on big jobs at Google. As a top player in product management, he helped lead some of the company's most well-known apps, including Gmail, Google Docs and Google Drive.

According to a report in Re/Code, Google's product management lead will be taken over by Diane Greene. She sits on Google's board of directors and has been acting as a senior vice president of Google's cloud business.

Google and parent company Alphabet recently paid $380 million in stock to acquire Bebop Technologies, the cloud software company Greene founded. That move prompted speculation that Google bought Bebop to bring Greene on board.

For Google, these moves and the creation of a new division are aimed at making sure the company doesn't fall behind -- or further behind -- competitors, like Facebook, in the virtual reality arena. Facebook, for instance, has already begun taking pre-orders for its virtual reality console Oculus Rift, with the device expected to begin rolling out in the first quarter of this year.

Google hasn't been totally out of the virtual reality realm.

The company last fall announced that its video-focused site YouTube would begin supporting virtual reality video, enabling users to view VR video using a smartphone and Google's Cardboard viewer.

"Virtual reality is eventually going to be one of the big data interfaces and given Google is about data access, not having a focus on this could be a going-out-of-business strategy," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "The market hasn't emerged yet, so there is time and Google has a great deal of reach. This may be the first step -- develop an expertise, then buy [related companies] to catch up."

Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner Inc., agreed that Google can still be a player in the virtual reality market.

"We could say Google is ahead, given their early start with Glass and their success with Cardboard," he added. "That said, I really feel it's still very early in terms of years for the development of a sustainable virtual reality and an immersive technology ecosystem. So it's feasible and realistic that Google can establish itself as an important technology supplier for this emerging market."

And while Enderle said Bavor is a good pick to get a new virtual reality division off the ground, Google may be looking around for someone to follow him with more expertise.

"He is a strong product management guy," said Enderle. "Eventually, they'll want a virtual reality person to run this, but he is a good selection to get the group off the ground."

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