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Google's plans for VR are even more ambitious than we thought

Engadget Engadget 20/05/2016 Nicole Lee

© Provided by Engadget

In 2014, Google introduced Cardboard. It was literally just a cut-out piece of cardboard outfitted with Velcro strips, a pair of lenses and magnets. Insert your smartphone and voila, you got your very own VR View-Master. Though it seemed pretty silly at the time, Cardboard was Google's very first foray into virtual reality. Fast forward two years, and there's a whole cottage industry of Cardboard-compatible viewers -- not to mention lots of content made just for it. More than 5 million viewers have shipped and over 50 million Cardboard apps have been installed, as Google said at its keynote yesterday. Now, however, the company is ready for the next stage in its grand plan. Yesterday, Google announced Daydream, a platform that represents its most serious push yet into VR.

What we're seeing here is a very real attempt to democratize virtual reality in a way we have not seen before. It all started with Cardboard, of course, but Daydream is so much more. Google is essentially doing for VR what Android did for smartphones: It's offering a basic set of specifications that other companies can use. There's no need for them to come up with their own software or spend precious resources to come up with the right hardware design; all of that is already taken care of. Hell, Google's even making its own Daydream headset just like it did with its Nexus devices.

In contrast to Cardboard, which is just a low-cost viewer, the Daydream platform encompasses designs for an actual headset, with the build quality of a Samsung Gear VR or Oculus Rift. It has headstraps and looks like it's made to be worn hands-free. There are even designs for a Wiimote-like motion controller. While Samsung's Gear VR works only with Samsung's own phones, a Daydream headset would be compatible with many more handsets. The potential here is huge.

While Cardboard could be used with pretty much any phone that could run the Cardboard app, Daydream's hardware requirements seem to be stricter, though Google hasn't released many details there. The company says it's working with a variety of manufacturers to make sure their handsets include "key components" such as "specific sensors and screens" required for Daydream. Samsung, Alcatel, HTC and LG are just a few hardware makers that have already committed to building Daydream-compatible phones, and they could also be designing Daydream-ready headsets too.

This is definitely a departure from Cardboard, which wasn't really meant for high-fidelity content or graphics-intensive games. Clay Bavor, Google's head of VR, once told me that Cardboard was purposefully designed without any headstraps. It was to encourage quick "snackable" moments of VR, like using it for a few minutes to check out a Mars field trip or to see what a neighborhood looks like on VR Streetview. Cardboard was made to be affordable and accessible -- a way to introduce VR to everyday people.

But if Cardboard is for VR snacks, Daydream is for meals. You can playserious games on Daydream and watch full-length movies. Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Epic Games have already pledged to have games on the Daydream platform and content providers like HBO and Netflix have jumped on board as well.

Daydream, then, is designed for a world in which escaping into virtual fantasies is the norm. Seeing as 2016 is the debut year for consumer editions of all the three major VR headsets -- Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR -- it's not too much of a leap to say that world is already upon us. Additionally, Oculus reported recently that there are now over one million monthly active users of Samsung's Gear VR. This proves that mobile VR is a viable category in its own right. Sure, Oculus has had a few years' head start, but Google's vast reach could be enough to give the Gear VR some stiff competition.

Of course, we've yet to see if these Daydream headsets are any good. But if Cardboard's success is any indication, I'd say Daydream has an even better shot at propagating VR to the masses.

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