In 2014, a cardboard box overshadowed almost everything else at Google’s annual I/O developers conference. Announced half-jokingly at the end of its keynote, Google Cardboard was a disposable fold-up virtual reality headset powered by a smartphone, an extremely lo-fi competitor to the Oculus Rift. In the years that followed, Cardboard spawned a small industry of cheap headsets and virtual reality experiences that ran on mobile phones, including a New York Times video app that Google supported by shipping a million Cardboards with the newspaper’s Sunday print issue.
But for Clay Bavor, a longtime Googler who became the company’s first head of virtual reality this year, Cardboard was also a Trojan horse — a low-stakes project that could one day evolve into something bigger. “We knew that Cardboard would only go so far,” says Bavor. “Because there's only so much you can do in terms of immersiveness and interactivity with — let's be serious — a piece of cardboard, and a phone that was really only meant to be a phone.” Cardboard’s accessibility and price made it popular, but they’ve also heavily limited the quality and length of experiences. After two years, Google wants a mobile VR platform that doesn’t just introduce people to virtual reality but makes them want to stay there.
That platform is called Daydream, an Android-based virtual reality initiative announced yesterday at I/O. Unlike Cardboard, Daydream’s apps will run only on new phones that have been certified by Google, a process that requires various VR-friendly components — like high-quality sensors for head tracking or screens that can reduce blurring by showing images in extremely short bursts. Partners will sell what Google promises will be incredibly comfortable, ergonomic Daydream headsets — designed with the help of unnamed clothing and accessory companies — alongside a small motion controller. And a new "VR Mode" in Android N includes Daydream-ready versions of several of its apps, including the Play Store and YouTube, giving you more to do without having to ever take the headset off.
The basic elements of Daydream were revealed in leaks before I/O, but the announcement wasn’t what everyone expected. A series of reports and rumors leading up to the show suggested that Google might unveil something like a totally self-contained mobile headset, or a device that used Project Tango sensors for "inside out" movement tracking, a technical breakthrough that could let mobile VR rival the Rift or Vive’s ability to let people move through physical space. The platform Google actually announced is more similar to Samsung’s Oculus-powered Gear VR, a black-and-white headset that can hold one of four Samsung phones. If Google has its way, though, Daydream could be one of the most important near-term achievements in virtual reality — and the thing that finally makes mobile VR more than a novelty.
The Gear VR is the only widely known mobile headset outside Cardboard, and while it was a smart and prescient piece of engineering, it’s never felt like a mature platform. It won’t work with most people’s phones, it’s uncomfortably bulky, and its interface had to be built on top of Samsung’s existing operating system (which is itself built on Android). Using it always feels like a compromise, something to do because you can’t bring the Oculus Rift everywhere.
There's a huge space in the market for mobile VR that just works
Yet for all this, the Gear VR is the only good way to access many games and a huge amount of VR video, a format that’s incredibly popular but only just appearing on the Vive and Rift. And mobile VR has unique advantages, like the fact that you’ll never get tangled in wires and that far more people own high-end phones than high-end desktop computers. There’s still a huge gap in the market for a device that, instead of vainly trying to compete with high-end headsets, leans into the potential advantages of mobile VR by being portable, accessible, and approachable. To succeed, Daydream doesn’t have to be more technically advanced than the Gear VR, just more convenient.
"Daydream is very much our platform for virtual reality," says Bavor, not just a headset. The whole project is based on the premise that Google can shape every part of the VR experience, from individual smartphone components to the Android interface itself. "We knew what each [part] was going to look like as we were designing it. Nothing had to be a bolt-on," he says. And if the phones contain all the tech, the headset itself doesn’t need "extra gizmos" like the Gear VR’s high-accuracy motion tracker. "It can just focus on being light and having great optics."
Daydream’s remote control, which must ship with any headset, is also fairly simple. A white oblong that Bavor says feels "kind of like a pebble," its built-in sensors let it detect rotation and (to a more limited extent) movement, allowing users to navigate the interface by using it as a laser pointer. "One of the first things we learn how to do as kids is point, right?" says Bavor. "And analog input — as opposed to buttons for doing things, buttons for aiming — it's something that everyone gets."
While you can (apparently) do some things with Daydream that would also work with Rift or Vive motion controllers, again, thinking of it as a competitor to either of these would be a bad idea. The Daydream remote is explicitly an answer to the Gear VR’s side-of-the-headset trackpad, an innovative design that’s often tiring and awkward to use. It’s something I asked for in my review of the Gear VR, and an idea that Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey has dismissed — partly, he told me in an interview at CES, because he worried that people would end up losing it. That’s a legitimate issue, and Bavor doesn’t say how Google might solve it, but he does say that there’s "a lot of detail in there that doesn't come through" in the headset rendering that Google released as part of this week’s announcement.
The thing that could really make Daydream feel natural is blending the very familiar features of Android with VR’s unique quirks. The VR Play Store, for example, will supposedly include all the features of its antecedent, but app previews will have what Bavor calls "worldshots" instead of screenshots — 360-degree freeze-frames that users will teleport inside. Google will arrange the Daydream home screen to accommodate the fact that VR "apps" are often portals to other libraries of videos or experiences, pulling out new material to make it easier to find. And VR YouTube will deal with a big problem I found in the Gear VR: the fact that you need a swivel chair or an incredibly flexible neck to watch 360-degree videos in a headset. Viewers can use the Daydream remote to pan around a video, while still using head-tracking for finer motion. Google also wants to make it easy to find and download VR apps or content while outside virtual reality, then queue them up to appear when you put on the headset.
But a really robust Android VR ecosystem depends on a lot of factors. For one thing, it assumes that the Daydream-ready phones from Samsung, HTC, Huawei, LG, and others will be good non-VR devices as well — good enough to buy and use as an everyday smartphone. Given that the headset image we’ve seen has all the detail of your average patent illustration, it also assumes that Google’s partners create headsets that are as uniquely light, comfortable, ergonomic, and even attractive as they’re supposed to be. (Though Daydream opens quality mobile VR up to a wide range of phones, it’s not totally clear whether all Daydream headsets will fit all Daydream-ready smartphones, or if buyers will be locked into certain brands or models.) And in order to succeed, Google will have to do something it’s historically eschewed: very carefully curate the Play Store.
Google will take a "very, very strong stance" on VR app performance and quality
Bavor says that for Daydream apps, Google will "take a very, very strong stance" on quality, performance, framerate, and image latency. "We want to make sure that we're representing good VR to our users," instead of risking putting them off with a nauseating experience. Part of the reason the platform is being announced here at I/O is to let developers start working with the system, even before they can actually use the headset. Both Unity and Epic, creators of the two most popular game engines for VR development, are announcing support today, and Google is releasing a series of demos that show how people could use the motion controller — several of which appeared in a video yesterday. While developers are waiting for the controller, says Google product manager Nathan Martz, they can emulate it by waving around a smartphone, putting a sticker over the screen to mark where its buttons and trackpad would be.
Despite its growing popularity, VR of any kind is still a niche platform to develop for, and Google will probably end up poaching a lot of content from the Samsung Gear VR — it’s already brought over apps from Netflix and Hulu. This raises a significant question: what happens when the creators of Android and the most powerful Android phone company are selling competing VR headsets? Samsung is one of the partners for Daydream, but Google wouldn’t comment on how or whether it would be competing with the Gear VR. Turning the Gear VR into a Daydream design would put Samsung in an awkward place with its current partner Oculus — especially because Oculus CTO John Carmack has invested significant time in optimizing Samsung’s Android phones for the headset. But Bavor seems hesitant when I float the possibility of Samsung selling it alongside a Daydream device. "I'm not really sure how to play all that out," he says.
No matter how many Android developers Google gets on board with Daydream, it’s got one huge disadvantage: unlike Cardboard, developers won’t be able to reach the millions of smartphone users running iOS. The original Cardboard was Android-only, but it only became truly ubiquitous after the second, universal version launched a year later. And for the foreseeable future, iOS isn’t part of Google’s Daydream plans. Getting good enough performance, Bavor says, requires changes "at all levels of the operating system" — it’s not as easy as porting Gmail or Google Maps over to the iPhone.
For now, at least, iOS users will still be able to use Cardboard, which Google will continue to support after Daydream’s launch. "We think we've pushed Cardboard pretty far. We've explored every possible way to cut and fold cardboard," says Bavor. "But we're continuing to invest in Cardboard. We think it's such an interesting, important thing."
What about the future, and the advanced designs that Google is supposedly working on in its labs? "If you fast-forward three years from now, all of this will look very different, right? There will be mobile VR devices in all shapes and sizes," says Bavor, and Daydream will eventually support them. But for now, the team is supposedly focused firmly on phone-based VR. "We think there's something really amazing that these devices, these smartphones, if you build them right, [have] all of the ingredients for really, really high-quality mobile VR experiences," he says. "Using the smartphone that people are already buying and refreshing every couple of years makes a lot of sense."