For years now, consumer virtual reality has been pitched as an exotic, futuristic creation; it's one of those products that seems created to fulfill the tech industry's sci-fi fantasies. But permanent novelty can only stay exciting for so long. So when Google announced its Daydream program earlier this year, it promised VR that felt normal. Daydream is an extension of your Android phone’s existing interface, coupled with headsets that are supposed to feel as comfortable as a pair of nice running shoes, the first of which was announced today. But Google doesn’t just want to make a piece of VR hardware — it wants to set the standard for how we experience mobile virtual reality.
While Google is releasing the initial Daydream devices, every major Android manufacturer is supposedly on board to announce a compatible phone, and other companies will begin making their own headsets based on Google’s reference design. But the ethos is very different from that of the fragmented Android ecosystem, and not just because phone makers will have to meet specific technical specs.
When Google VP of virtual reality Clay Bavor talks about Daydream’s interface, he doesn’t describe screens, he describes specific places. "The Home button always takes you here," he says, pointing out Daydream’s default menu, which is set in an idyllic low-poly forest. "It's this beautiful, warm, welcoming environment." When you watch a flatscreen movie, it’s in an outdoor theater with "warm light and comfy chairs," and a majestic tree behind you. Your film library is a lobby full of cinematic visual references, including a red pill and a blue pill, a bicycle and a moon, and the Titanic. ("Obviously sinking," Bavor adds.)
In the future, users might be able to customize these environments. And you don’t have to use Daydream’s menu; you can find VR apps in the Play Store and open them directly if you’d like. For now, though, there’s a clear kind of logic behind it. If VR is like entering another world, then Daydream is our shared framework for reality, before we launch into whatever game, movie, or experience we’ve chosen.
If VR is like entering another world, Daydream is our shared framework for reality
But there’s a big problem with this premise. No matter how many Android manufacturers adopt Daydream, a huge number of smartphone users — namely, anybody with an iPhone — will be left out. Daydream isn’t a standalone app like Maps, Gmail, or search. It relies on being an integral part of the Android operating system, complete with things like a custom notification system and a direct link to the Google Play Store. Apple has shown almost no public interest in VR, and if it’s building a platform, it could use a completely different control scheme than Daydream.
Android phone owners are used to watching from afar while a mega-popular iOS app or game becomes a mainstream phenomenon. Hypothetically, Daydream could do this in reverse. But there are far fewer examples of that happening, and the definition of "virtual reality" is confusing enough that plenty of people might not even know what they’re missing. When a category lumps together everything from cheap plastic lenses to cutting-edge motion control systems, how many users will assume the Daydream View is just a nice-looking Cardboard headset, even if that’s completely wrong?
Google is also still feeling out what these users might want to do in VR, just like every other platform creator. The Daydream team says there will be at least 50 apps available in 2016, with "hundreds" more coming. Among other things, you can find a sequel to CCP’s VR turret shooter EVE: Gunjack; video apps from Hulu, Netflix, and HBO; a game from Lego; and a spell-casting tie-in to the upcoming Harry Potter film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Google has been partnering with filmmakers on a slate of new 360-degree videos to launch with Daydream View. A VR version of YouTube will also let people watch any flatscreen video on a virtual big-screen TV, as will Google Play Movies & TV. Though this isn’t a slam-dunk catalog by any means, it’s a decent start, particularly YouTube — an app that’s been notably missing from Gear VR.
But when Bavor talks about Daydream most passionately, it’s over something fairly unexpected: Google Street View. "We sometimes say that we've accidentally been working on the ultimate VR application for the last ten years," he says of the app, which is one of Daydream’s current demo experiences. Google has put special effort into assembling a dense, high-quality collection of images capturing landmarks like the Taj Mahal, where users can wander around by warping from point to point, admiring the scenery. Outside that, he suggests that people will want to revisit spaces from their past — like old apartment blocks, favorite vacation spots, or the place they got engaged.
It’s tough to believe that VR’s killer app will be effectively a series of virtual photo books, complete with tourists and pedestrians whose faces have been eerily blurred for privacy. Conceptually, though, it’s a perfect marriage of VR with Google’s unique ambitions. Google doesn’t want to be the world’s greatest entertainment provider, it wants to be an index of all the world’s knowledge, and virtual reality is the ultimate way to feed that knowledge back to our brains.
Google doesn’t want to be an entertainment company, it wants to be an index of the world’s knowledge
This works for grand works like the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu, but it can also happen on a more personal level. Daydream’s Photos app will support panoramic images that you — or a friend or relative — create, either using a 360-degree camera rig or Google’s Cardboard Camera app. Bavor recalls visiting his parents upon learning that they were leaving the home where he grew up, and preserving the whole thing in virtual reality. "I took panoramas of all the most meaningful places for me — my room growing up as a kid; the kitchen, where we had every meal; the family room where we did Christmas; the outdoor courtyard where I fell and banged up my knee," he says. "I used the audio to just narrate short snippets, a short guided tour, of my house. And then I was able to, in Google Photos for VR, take my parents on the guided tour — and [have] it for myself, for my kids."
The idea that VR can preserve the past isn’t new — look at anything from virtual museum tours to the ‘90s TV miniseries Wild Palms, where dead loved ones were resurrected in VR. But Google — via Android, Gmail, Photos, and any number of other apps — is one of the entities that we already expect to keep a record of our life, whether we like it or not. The idea that it could play that record back in a truly lifelike way is both incredible and, in the abstract, a little scary.
Practically, though, Daydream will still just be a delivery mechanism for pictures and video — media that’s more immersive, sure, but hard to mistake for real life. The notion of sharing VR moments with your friends and family is genuinely great, but as long as it’s limited to Android, a lot of people will get left out, or at least be limited to less comfortable options like Google Cardboard. For all the heady possibilities of VR, the apps people end up loving on any platform can turn out to sound boring or outright silly, until you try them for yourself and get caught in a month-long bender of cat collecting or navigating Flappy Bird. The members of Google’s VR team talk about letting people go anywhere in the world through virtual reality. They also know that for some reason, people really love to flip pancakes.
It’s fun to think of VR as a direct mainline of human consciousness, an obscure kind of techno-wizardry, or basically anything except a crude and uncertain, if promising, new medium. But that’s the very thing that Daydream is implicitly pushing back against. VR is magic in the way that all technology is magic. The ultimate success, for Google, would be getting us to start taking it for granted.