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Google’s Plan to Use Android Phones to Dominate Virtual Reality

Google’s Daydream platform is its answer to the Oculus and Gear VR headsets.

In the two years since Google showed off the first version of Google Cardboard, its simple virtual-reality viewer, a lot has changed in the VR market. Samsung released its smartphone-powered Gear VR headset, high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive hit the market, and a growing wave of developers are committing time and money to creating immersive content that goes with these devices.

Now Google is stepping up its VR game, too. At the company’s annual developer conference in Mountain View, California, on Wednesday, it introduced a new virtual-reality platform called Daydream that will be available in the fall as part of the latest version of its Android operating system, Android N.

Daydream includes several pieces: a set of standards for smartphones that will work to play virtual-reality content, reference designs for a Daydream headset that uses one of these smartphones (much like Samsung’s Gear VR) and an accompanying controller, and a range of apps that will include content coming from partners like HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and video-game makers Electronic Arts and Ubisoft.

The company already has eight smartphone makers committed to making Daydream-compatible phones, including Samsung, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, and ZTE, and several phones will be ready in the fall, said Clay Bavor, who leads Google’s virtual-reality team. It’s not yet clear how much any of the hardware or the apps will cost.

Bavor, who introduced Daydream at the conference, said Google believes virtual reality should be mobile, approachable, and for everyone—an approach that’s very much in the vein of Google Cardboard, as opposed to pricey headsets like Rift and Vive, both of which have to be tethered to a high-end PC.

If the company is able to convince others to help it execute this goal—and do it well—it could prove a formidable challenge to others in the virtual-reality space, and help grow the nascent market.

Bavor said the Daydream team worked on common virtual-reality issues like rendering digital imagery at high frame rates and in high resolution, and minimizing the latency between when you move your head and when images you’re looking at update. Phones that will work with Daydream will have to have sensors for accurate head tracking, displays with fast response times, and software that can make use of these capabilities while keeping latency “to an absolute minimum,” he said.

Bavor also showed off a sketch of a reference design for the headset that Google imagines companies will make for viewing Daydream’s content. It looked a lot like the latest version of Samsung’s Gear VR. It had a single band to wrap around your head and a box to go over your eyes that looked like it latched at the top in its center.

He presented a design for a handheld controller meant to go with the headset, too, which appeared very similar in style to the oblong one that Oculus ships with its Rift. This one, however, had fewer buttons, an indented, circular touch pad near the top, and as some video demos showed, it could be twisted and turned to control the same sorts of actions in games (for instance, to twist and turn an animated flying dragon).

In addition to announcing content and gaming partners, Google is expanding the ways in which its own services support VR to help Daydream take off. Bavor said users will be able to view Google Streetview in virtual reality, and that Google Photos will support VR photos. He also noted that YouTube will include voice search, spatial audio, and other features that you can use in virtual reality.


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