The Android spec race is back on. With the announcement of a far-reaching Daydream VR initiative, Google effectively rebooted the quest for the biggest and baddest spec sheet among Android manufacturers. While some blinkered companies never let go of that competition, for the past couple of years we just haven't had a use for all the power in mobile devices. They've grown kind of, gulp, boring. Daydream changes that in a hurry by demanding better graphical performance, higher resolution, and a sophisticated array of sensors.
Yeah, but can it run VR Crysis?
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium with a 4K display that launched last year? It seemed overkill then, but now it looks like the blueprint for a new class of Android phone, which Google will officially certify as Daydream Ready. The minimum spec isn't known yet, but we do know it will be distinctly high-end.
In the PC realm, the Oculus Ready sticker is the one that every manufacturer wants to feature, because it helps to justify and sell the higher-spec, higher-margin machines. Virtual reality headsets require one video stream per eye in order to recreate a realistic 3D world around their user, which in turn is fuelling demand for more powerful graphics cards and processors. Nvidia's excellent new GeForce GTX 1080 card has been designed with VR in mind, and AMD's upcoming response, codenamed Polaris, will also pay special attention to the category.
The PC market is ahead of the mobile one, but not by much. Hell, the two platforms are sharing a promising new graphics API in Vulkan, which will be supported in Android N. We're likely to see mobile graphics processors also touting VR-friendly features and designs, as every company tries to position itself to capitalize on the hot new trend. Display makers might start talking about refresh rates and other aspects of their screens that never mattered in the past. They still won't, for the majority of people, but Google's Daydream announcement sets a firm foundation of expectation for those who want to experience VR on the move. Unlike Samsung's Gear VR and other nascent mobile initiatives, Daydream benefits from Google's immense scale. When Google flips the switch on something in Android, everyone gets on board.
Daydream Ready is the mobile equivalent of Oculus Ready
Phones that meet the Daydream Ready spec are coming this fall from Samsung, LG, HTC, Huawei, Xiaomi, ZTE, Asus, and Alcatel. Sony might not be on the list yet, but that's probably because Sony is slow rather that uninterested. There isn't an Android smartphone manufacturer on the planet that won't be tempted by this new potential to sell a premium device with the promise of great VR experiences. That promise isn't hollow, either, as Google's great influence has also roped in a bevy of big-time content providers. Netflix, HBO, and Hulu for entertainment, the NBA and MLB for sports, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and The New York Times for news, and even IMAX for the ultimate level of immersion.
Virtual reality is still highly susceptible to being overwhelmed by its own hype, but one thing it's already doing is reenergizing the demand for and interest in high-spec devices. For PCs, it's the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive that nudge people to upgrade, while in the mobile realm that role will be played by Google's Daydream. Even before we discover the killer VR app, many will be tempted to get the Daydream Ready phone. Just in case.