Following months of speculation, Google is diving deeper into virtual reality. Today at its I/O keynote, the company announced Daydream, a VR platform built on top of Android N. Google says that Daydream-ready phones, as well as VR viewers and motion controllers, will be available this fall.
Daydream — which encompasses both hardware and software — is a more advanced successor to Cardboard, the disposable headset standard that Google released two years ago. It's a mobile VR system powered by the next wave of Android N devices, built to a company-approved standard. Where Google Cardboard worked with almost any smartphone, Daydream will only work on new phones with specific components like special sensors and screens. There's no sign of something like Project Tango's spatial mapping or augmented reality options, but the components are supposed to offer a smoother, lower-latency experience than you could get by simply adding VR as a software update.
Daydream is for new Android phones only
For phones that can handle it, Google is baking a feature called Android VR Mode into the latest version of its operating system. Hinted at in leaks before the show, VR Mode includes a series of optimizations that will improve apps' performance. But it's also an ecosystem that users will be able to navigate inside virtual reality. A Daydream home screen will let people access apps and content while using the headset; an early look shows a whimsical forest landscape with the slightly low-poly look that Google has used in Cardboard apps. Inside this environment, Google has created special VR versions of YouTube, Street View, the Google Play Store, Play Movies, and Google Photos. It's also recruited a number of outside media companies to bring apps to Daydream, including streaming platforms like Netflix and gaming companies like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts.
Google has announced eight hardware partners that will make Daydream-ready phones, including Samsung, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Asus, and Alcatel.
While the phone will provide the screen and computing power for Daydream, users will also need a version of Google's new VR headset and controller, which the company is showing a reference design for at I/O. Beyond a very basic rendering, showing a hinged phone holder with a strap, we don't know what the headset looks like. But as with the Cardboard standard, companies can build on the "comfortable and intuitive" Daydream design to produce and sell their own versions — though Google probably won't be putting up a DIY guide like it did with Cardboard.
We don't know how much of a catalog Google will be able to build before release, or how much you should expect to pay for a Daydream device — the headset's closest competitor, the Samsung Gear VR, sells for $99. But Google hasn't been keeping its VR ambitions secret. Last week, an "Android VR" option was spotted in the Android Developer Console. Before that, the second Android N Developer Preview contained several references to virtual reality. Before that, there was a Wall Street Journal report about a secret team of Google engineers working on a version of VR for Android.
And for anyone who isn't ready to buy a new phone this fall, Google doesn't seem like it's abandoning Cardboard — it updated its iOS YouTube app to support the platform last week.