At the end of Google’s annual I/O developer’s conference in 2014, the company half-jokingly announced the release of Google Cardboard, a disposable fold-up virtual reality headset powered by your smartphone. This was meant to be an extremely low quality direct competitor to the Oculus Rift. Of course, at the time, this was a mere joke, or was it? Since then, Google Cardboard spawned into a niche industry of inexpensive headsets that offered virtual reality experiences operating on mobile phones. Surprisingly, Google produced the product and shipped one million Cardboards with the New York Times video app Sunday print issue.
In 2015, Clay Bavor became the company’s first head of virtual reality noting that the Cardboard was simply a Trojan horse; a low-technology project that could eventually evolve into a grand product. Of course Google knew that Cardboard could only go so far. With virtual reality, the opportunities are endless with regards to interactivity. While Cardboard’s price and accessibility made it a popular choice, the quality and length of experiences were limited. Nevertheless, after two years, Google has moved forward with a mobile virtual reality platform that doesn’t just introduce virtual reality, it makes them want to remain on top of the latest releases.
Known as Daydream, this Android-based virtual reality initiative was announced again in May 2016 at the I/O conference. Google plans to only run Daydream’s apps on new phones that have been certified by Google to accept Virtual Reality applications. The componentry of the phone must be Virtual Reality-capable by containing screens that can reduce blurring and high quality sensors of head movements. Partners will sell Daydream headsets with a small controller. Within the Android N operating system will be a new virtual reality mode that will allow users to do even more without removing their headset.
Various leaks prior to the conference suggest that Google has unveiled a device that utilizes Project Tango sensors to ensure inside-out movement tracking. This is a technological breakthrough that could allow the headset to rival the Oculus Rift. However, Google is still striving to have the Daydream be one of the most important near-term achievements in the virtual reality industry, thus making it more than a simple novelty.
Currently, other than Google Cardboard, the Gear VR is the only known headset but it does not feel like a mature platform, despite being an incredible feat of engineering and precision. Unfortunately the Gear VR will not work with most phones, its interface was built on top of Samsung’s existing operating system and it is uncomfortably bulky to wear. Regardless, the Gear VR is the only current method of accessing VR video and games. Therefore, for Google Daydream to succeed, it does not need to be more technologically advanced, it just needs to be more convenient.
The entire Daydream project is based on the fact that Google has the control to shape every virtual reality experience using its Android interface and certified smartphones. Therefore, if the phones contains all of the technology, the actual headset does not need extra gadgets similar to the Gear VR’s high-accuracy motion tracker. All of this technology makes for an uncomfortable and bulky headset. Instead, the Daydream can focus on being lightweight, portable and boasting excellent optics.
The remote control that will ship with every headset is simply to hold and use. It contains integrated sensors that detects rotation and movement thus aiding users in navigating the interface with the remote acting as a laser pointer. This remote is the answer to the Gear VR’s side-of-the-headset track pad that is awkwardly placed and tiring to use.
The area where Daydream could really shake up the industry is the blending of familiar features of the Android platform. For instance, the VR Play Store will include all existing apps but the virtual reality versions will have “world shots,” instead of screenshots, that allow the user view 360-degree freeze frames that can be teleported inside of the headset. The home screen will be developed so that virtual reality apps are portals to other libraries of experiences.
The Daydream will also deal with the VR YouTube issue of needed to spin to watch 360-degree videos. Instead, Google’s product will allow users to utilize the remote to pan through and around the video within the headset while still utilizing head-tracking for more precise motion. Google will also make it easier to find and download virtual reality content when outside of the headset then simply queue them up when the headset is put on.
However, the most robust virtual reality ecosystem depends on multiple factors. First, it assumes the Daydream-ready phones from HTC, LG, Huawei and Samsung will be acceptable non-virtual reality devices. They will need to be acceptable enough to use as everyday phones. Another assumption is that Google’s virtual reality competitors will develop headsets that are as comfortable, ergonomic, light and attractive as they should be. Lastly, Google must carefully curate the Play Store for virtual reality apps and content.
The head of the virtual reality department at Google notes that the company will take an extremely strong stance on performance, quality and image latency. Google wants to ensure that they are representing an excellent virtual reality experience for their users. One of the primary reasons the platform was announced at the I/O conference was to allow developers to begin creating content for the system, even before it is a headset.
Although there is a growing interest, virtual reality continues to be a niche platform for developers and users. As a result, Google will likely use a lot of Samsung Gear VR content such as aps from Hulu and Netflix. What is interesting is that Google’s primary competitor, Samsung, is also one of the partners for Daydream. Google has not yet commented on their competition with the Gear VR. Changing the Gear VR to a Daydream design would place Samsung in a difficult spot with its current partner Oculus.
When you fast-forward three years from now, all of these designs and technology will look and feel extremely different. Mobile VR devices will likely be available in all sizes and shapes which could eventually be supported by Google Daydream. At the time being, the virtual reality team is simply focused on firming up the phone-based unit.