When Google announced the Daydream virtual reality platform at its 2016 I/O conference, the system was pitched as a core feature of Android Nougat, with strong support from manufacturers. Almost every major Android phone maker was supposed to be releasing a Daydream-ready phone, which would work with any Daydream-compatible mobile headset. But one year later, the platform is still niche, and a lot of these partners have been keeping quiet about their plans.
Google originally listed eight manufacturers that would support Daydream. Samsung, HTC, Huawei, LG, ZTE, Asus, Alcatel, and Xiaomi all promised to enable it, which would put every major phone maker except Sony on the platform. So far, two of these companies have released Daydream-ready devices. ZTE updated the Axon 7 to support it, and Huawei included the feature on the Mate 9 Pro and Porsche Design Mate 9. A third manufacturer, Asus, supports both Daydream and Google’s Tango augmented reality on the ZenFone AR. And Lenovo, which wasn’t on the original list, joined the program with its Motorola Moto Z line.
But the remaining partners haven’t said much about the platform lately. Xiaomi told the Financial Times it was still committed to Daydream last August, but we’ve heard practically nothing since then. While Alcatel promised to launch a Daydream-ready phone in the first half of 2017, we’re still waiting for more details. Neither company responded to a request for comment in time for publication.
Part of the issue is Google’s low-persistence screen requirement for Daydream, which has been interpreted as effectively requiring an OLED display. “That would be the reason we haven't been able to support Daydream,” an LG spokesperson said. The company’s newer phones, including the flagship G6 that was released last month without Daydream support, use IPS screens; Xiaomi’s bezel-less Mi Mix also uses IPS.
HTC has arguably produced a Daydream-ready phone, since it built Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL, where the platform officially launched last fall. It hasn’t added the feature to its self-branded devices, though, including the HTC U 11 that was released today — and uses Super LCD instead of OLED. “We don't currently have any HTC-branded phones announced or on the market that support Daydream,” a spokesperson told The Verge, who did not say whether future support was in the works.
Samsung, which is a key player for Google to win over, does use OLED displays on its newly released Galaxy S8 flagship. But it hasn’t offered details on Daydream since the original announcement, and didn’t comment on future plans in time for publication.
Most of these companies also have their own VR hardware. Most notably, there’s Samsung’s Gear VR, the most popular headset outside Google’s bare-bones Cardboard design. LG launched the LG 360 VR in 2016. Xiaomi has since announced its own headset, the Mi VR, and Alcatel revealed an all-in-one VR headset late last year, in addition to a lower-end accessory that shipped with the OneTouch Idol 4S.
This competition isn’t necessarily bad news for Google. Samsung and LG signed onto Daydream after releasing their own headsets, which means they theoretically didn’t see anything wrong with having two VR platforms. All-in-one headsets like Alcatel’s fit into a different category than phone-based VR. But they still fragment the Android VR ecosystem. Samsung in particular has no incentive to adopt Daydream, and it’s easy to build the platform’s best features — like an external motion controller — into Gear VR.
Samsung is a key partner for Google, but also its biggest rival
The Daydream headset market is even smaller than the phone ecosystem. Huawei is the only third-party company to announce its own headset, and unlike Google’s universally compatible Daydream View, it’s specifically made for Huawei phones. It’s okay to have one or two mobile headset designs, since they’re relatively cheap accessories. But it’s another way in which Google’s original promise hasn’t materialized yet.
Daydream’s app selection also remains limited. The Google Play Store lists 90 Daydream games and 63 non-game apps, including first-party creations like Google Photos and Street View. That’s less than one-fifth the size of the Gear VR catalog, which lists over 770 apps. Oculus and Samsung got a two-year head start on Daydream, and Gear VR developers haven’t added Daydream support en masse so far, possibly because of slow sales.
Despite all these issues, Google would expand Daydream’s presence massively and almost instantly at I/O if it could convince Samsung to jump on board. If the Galaxy S8 — which is already used for the high-powered Gear VR experience — meets Google’s Daydream-ready standards, Samsung could theoretically enable support with a simple software update. This would be a huge boost, making Google’s $79 headset a much cheaper competitor to the $129 Gear VR. And that’s leaving aside any potential updates to the required Daydream specs, or other changes that might make it easier for manufacturers to join the platform.
Daydream faces an uphill climb
Daydream would still face an uphill climb toward success. Because it’s tied to the Google Play Store, it’s a bad fit for the massive Chinese market, where users rely on third-party app stores like HTC’s Viveport M. And in the US, any Android-based VR system will leave out millions of iPhone users, preventing it from becoming a universal platform.
But if it doesn’t grow soon, Daydream may stop feeling relevant at all. The VR industry is headed toward its second generation of hardware, with companies like Microsoft and Oculus already revealing new breakthroughs in self-contained, fully tracked headsets. It’s unclear how interested Samsung still is in the existing Gear VR, Daydream’s main rival, despite its relative success. And Google is almost certainly working on new technology; last week, VR and AR engineering director Relja Markovic said there would be “many, many things that come after” Daydream.
This year’s Google I/O has had few new VR hardware rumors, so we may not see any of those things (which could include Tango-based location tracking or an all-in-one design, to name a couple of possibilities) in 2017. But we will get a sense of how invested Google is in Daydream — and whether the platform has a future in its current form.