God bless my $20-limit Secret Santa this year for getting me a Google Cardboard. If you're a geek, it's definitely worth spending the cost of a NYC lunch or two on one of these dinky little devices. There's not a ton of content yet for Cardboard -- and most of it is demos -- but it's really fantastic what you can do with a piece of cardboard, a smartphone, and two lenses.
There are, of course, more sophisticated ways of augmenting or virtualizing your reality. The Oculus Rift defines the state-of-the-art, but it's still only intended for developers, and while reasonably priced at $350 is still way more expensive than $20. (IMO, betting on Oculus was a great move on Facebook's part. It's a long-term play but it'll pay off.)
But Google Cardboard proves that there's more than one way to do virtual reality. You don't need a specialized $350 device, you just need a piece of cardboard with two lenses pointed at a smartphone. Over time, both our hardware and our understanding of virtual and augmented reality will improve, and VR/AR will start moving into the mainstream.
I think the growth of VR/AR will parallel the growth of mobile computing and at-home computing: consumers will become more comfortable with the idea of having multiple devices for different situations. I can have a smartphone in my pocket with a small collapsible headset that I can whip out on my commute. But I'll also have an Oculus at the office for interacting with remote employees, and perhaps a full-fledged VR couch/theater at home for entertainment.
It makes me wonder: why hasn't Google Cardboard started working with phones with stereoscopic cameras (of which there are only two)? As goofy as it'd look from the outside, imagine being able to strap your phone to your face and having the augmented reality HUD you've never known you needed!
Interestingly, Google and Facebook have a great opportunity to work together here. They both have a vested interest in owning human-computer interactions, and they both have powerful VR and AR programs. They both need VR and AR to go mainstream in order to capitalize on it, but I don't think they realize that together, they are the mainstream.
Google already knows how to make smartphones, and they have great software chops too. (I'm not sure Glass is a big part of the future; I think we still want to use our phones when on-the-go for now, and more intensive sessions will happen at the office or at home with a more immersive device like the Oculus.)
Facebook, on the other hand, owns a ton of the planet's daily interaction with their devices. They've also got the Rift team, which presumably could build software that works wonderfully with "Google Nexus 3D"'s stereoscopic low-latency HD cameras (maybe that's a stretch, but you see where I'm going with this).
Facebook has the power to bring the expectation of AR interaction to people's daily lives. We're all so narcissistic that we'd constantly share "life through our eyes" on our newsfeeds. Vine and Snapchat would follow suit, bringing crowdsourced first-person 3D experiential content to the fold.
Google, of course, provides the hardware at first, but then they'll do what Google does and they'll integrate VR and AR across half of the things they own, and then shut down some unrelated stuff. Their next step is to leverage Google Fiber and Google Internet Hot Air Balloons, and they start giving people free internet if it's served in AR with Google content and advertisements. And a billion people will start using it. A few unicorn companies will pop up in this period, but Facebook and Google will make a killing, but they won't brag or be loud about it.
Microsoft will do some very interesting things during this time, but it's really hard to predict quite what they'll do or how it'll perform. Despite being the brunt of jokes since the dawn of computing, Microsoft is very competent both in hardware and in R&D. The Surface Pro and Microsoft Phone are actually both really great devices; it's a pity they're not more popular because I do find myself rooting for M$FT from time to time (I'm surprised about that too).
Apple, of course, will stay on top. Despite the fact that Apple product development is still very sharp (though a little duller since Jobs), and their R&D and hardware is fantastic, I don't see them playing a huge role in the initial momentum building of the VR/AR movement. They'll be working on it very hard, in secret, but they won't be ready when Facebook and Google capture the early markets. And then, one day, just when the world is wondering "is VR mainstream yet?", Apple will deliver the coup de grâce by suddenly and surprisingly releasing a beautiful new product that competes with -- and blows away -- Oculus' consumer product. Oculus will stay strong, but the market will be split, perhaps with Oculus moving to focus on businesses and Apple focusing on consumers.
I believe this could all unfold within the next 7-10 years, but only if Google and Facebook conspire to bring VR and AR mainstream. Get on it, guys!
(Of course, all of the above assumes that consumes a) want AR/VR and b) would rather strap a phone to their face than buy a Google Glass as an interim measure).