At its annual I/O developer conference today, Google is showing off a reference design for a new virtual reality headset that builds on the success of the Cardboard unit it launched back in 2014. The headset is part of Google's new Daydream initiative, a mobile VR platform baked into Android N. As with Android, Google wants its hardware partners to build and sell their own Daydream devices. And in a surprise move, Daydream's system doesn't just use a headset — it also features a new kind of control system for mobile VR.
Based on the reference design above, the Daydream headset is a fairly straightforward step up from Cardboard, made to hold a smartphone in a front slot that latches at the top. While some early rumors suggested that Google was working on a totally self-contained headset, that hasn't shown up at I/O. This design looks closest to Samsung's Gear VR headset, which was released last year and fits a small number of Samsung phones. Besides the fact that the Daydream platform is supposed to cover large swathes of the Android ecosystem, the most obvious difference between this headset and the Gear VR is the small remote that's shown alongside it.
With what appear to be volume buttons and a round pad at the top, this remote looks similar to the one that ships with Oculus' high-end Rift headset. But Google's design actually has basic motion sensing capabilities as well. A demo video shows someone waving it like a wand, firing off boomerangs, and navigating a VR app menu like a laser pointer, all powered by an orientation sensor inside the device. It's unlikely to be as full-featured as the motion controllers that HTC and Oculus use with the Vive and Rift headsets respectively, nor is it likely to have the same range — both those controller setups rely on external tracking systems instead of internal sensors. Google says that it's focusing on making the headset and controller "comfortable and intuitive," whatever their final feature set ends up being.
HTC, Samsung, LG, Huawei, and others are listed as Daydream partners
Google has been making clear for a while that its approach to VR will depend on your smartphone, not a standalone headset. This is a bottom-up strategy to capturing the market, as opposed to the top-down approach of Facebook's Oculus Rift, which requires an expensive headset and powerful gaming PC. Google is betting the mobile devices in your pocket will get better faster than prices for high-end headsets will fall.
While Cardboard headsets weren't picky about the phone you put in them, Google's new virtual reality experience will only work on approved phones with special parts, like screens and sensors that can deliver high-quality mobile VR. Google says that it's working with several hardware partners on Daydream-ready phones, the first of which will be coming out this fall. On the component side, Google is working with developers like ARM, Qualcomm, MediaTek, and Imagination Technologies. For phones, Google says HTC, ZTE, Huawei, Asus, Xiaomi, Alcatel, LG, and Samsung are all planning to have VR ready Android phone ready by this fall. Finally, on the software side, Google announced partnerships with HBO, Ubisoft, and the NBA to create VR apps for Daydream.
Price is a big question markAs you can see, Google hasn't exactly provided an in-depth look at the Daydream design, and there's a lot we don't know. One of those things is the price, which will go a long way toward determining its popularity. The Gear VR costs $99, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Daydream headsets sold somewhere around its price, as opposed to that of the $20 Cardboard or the $600 Oculus Rift. We also don't know who's going to be making the headsets. Given that Google is providing the reference design to Android manufacturers, it's reasonable to think some of the partners above are working on versions, but the whole thing's still a mystery — at least for the next few months.