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Daydream: How Google Is Tricking Us All to Embrace Virtual Reality

Google’s first venture into virtual reality began with a sneaky trick.

When the company introduced its Cardboard viewer in 2014, it decided to not include a head strap, forcing users to instead hold the viewer up to their faces. The official line at the time was that this was done to keep Cardboard comfortable. That’s partially true. Having what amounts to a small cardboard box strapped to your face is not a great experience.

But in documents it shared with manufacturers of Cardboard headsets, Google shared a far more technical reason for this design decision. “When the user holds the Cardboard with their hands against the face, their head rotation speed is limited by the torso rotational speed (which is much slower than the neck rotational speed),” a design guideline document reads. “This reduces the chance of ‘VR sickness’ caused by rendering (and) latency and increases the immersiveness in VR.”

Latency is a big deal for VR: If a headset introduces a noticeable delay, viewers can can start to feel motion sickness, because what they see doesn’t align with what their body feels. Higher-end VR headsets have largely cracked this problem for most people. But Cardboard was based on phones and their built-in sensors, which just weren’t made with this kind of application in mind. Moving too fast with a Cardboard headset would have made you sick, so Google tricked you into slowing down by forcing you to move your entire upper body instead of just your head.

This anecdote is worth keeping in mind as Google is getting ready to take its VR efforts to the next level. Many expected the company to do what Oculus and HTC have done: Build a singular product to sell to consumers, perhaps mobile but with an integrated screen. Instead, the company unveiled Daydream, an Android-based VR platform at its Google I/O developer conference in Mountain View, California last week.

Daydream is based on the next version of Android, code-named Android N, and combines high-end mobile phones with custom-built headsets that these phones can be inserted to. To produce both Daydream-ready phones and accompanying headsets, Google is collaborating with eight different mobile phone manufacturers, including Samsung, Xiaomi and Huawei. Basically, you can expect many high-end Android phones to be sold later this or early next year to be ready for Daydream. And just to get things started, Google will also build its own headset, and likely add Daydream compatibility to the next generation of its Nexus line of phones as well.

Daydream headsets, which are expected to ship this fall, will be a lot more immersive that Cardboard viewers. For one thing, they’ll be more comfortable to wear, and not made out of cardboard material. But Google also put a lot of effort into cracking the “VR sickness” problem. “You have to minimize motion-to-photon latency,” said Google VR head Clay Bavor at Google I/O. To do so, Daydream-optimized phones are going to bring this latency below 20 milliseconds.

A rendering of the reference design for Daydream VR headsets. Google has plans to build and sell such a headset this fall, but also wants to enable partners to build their own.
Courtesy of Google

Daydream won’t have the same kind of positional tracking available to high-end headsets like the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, at least not at launch. That means that users won’t be able to move through a space while they’re being tracked by cameras like the ones that ship with those two headsets. The HTC Vive in particular is impressing with its ability to track users within a ten-by-ten feet space, making it possible to wander through virtual worlds while actually walking around in circles in your living room.

Experiences built for Google’s headsets will by necessity be a lot more stationary. However, the company is again raising the bar above Cardboard by mandating the use of a Daydream remote controller that will work a bit like a touch pad-equipped magic wand, making it possible to point to and “grab” objects. This will help developers to again use clever tricks, like the one pioneered by Penrose Studios for one of its Gear VR experiences a while back: Instead of making users walk around in a virtual world, Daydream developers could let users rotate the world around them, and zoom in on objects to explore 3D spaces without ever having to leave the comfort of their own couch.

The Daydream home screen, as shown at Google I/O. Daydream-capable phones will switch to this user interface as soon as they are inserted into a Daydream headset.
Courtesy of Google

That makes Daydream potentially a lot more ubiquitous. Not everyone has the space, or the commitment, to install a room-scale VR system in their home. Mobile VR, on the other hand, can be used anywhere, and easily taken to a friend’s house to show off.

Add to this the fact that Daydream is based on phones, which will make the headsets a lot more affordable. Not Cardboard-cheap, but cheap enough to be picked up en masse. Samsung’s Gear VR has shown that consumers are willing to use mobile VR if it’s cheap, or given as a free add-on for premium phones, with a million active users in April alone.

With Daydream, Google is now getting ready to take mobile VR to the next level. Instead of just building one single Google-branded headset, the company built an ecosystem — and in turn, it is tricking us again: Just like Cardboard, Google’s VR worlds won’t be the most immersive, cutting-edge technology. Instead, they’ll be the ones with the lowest barrier of entry. But we won’t mind, just like we weren’t bothered by holding that Cardboard viewer up to our face. Instead, we’ll buy VR-ready handsets by the millions when it’s time to replace our current phones, and Daydream headsets will be the accessories we won’t be able to pass up.

And here’s the good news: This time, they will even feature a head strap.

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