Clay Bavor, Google’s vice president of virtual reality, isn’t all that concerned with perfection. Sure, he’d love to create virtual worlds that look and feel like real ones, and he’s convinced Google, and others, will get there eventually. While they work on that, though, Bavor’s primary objective is to put a VR headset on absolutely everyone he can find. Why VR is cool and exciting is hard to explain in words, he says–and tech reporters around the world feel his pain–but as soon as you try it, you get it. That’s why Google’s virtual-reality plans have always been all about giving as many people access as possible. Perfection comes later.
On stage today at Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference/show-and-tell, Bavor announced the next steps in that journey. Google is developing the next version of Android specifically with virtual reality in mind, so that every smartphone running its operating system will be a VR headset right out of the box. It’s working with partners on new, decidedly non-cardboard headsets and controllers, coming later this year, that should drastically improve the quality of the whole experience–as well as a set of phone specs that enable optimal VR experiences in Android. And it’s created Daydream, a standard and brand that encompasses everything Google’s working on with VR.
Daydream isn’t a custom version of the operating system like Android TV or Android Wear. It’s just part of Android, the way texting and notifications are part of Android. It’s VR Mode. When you dock your phone, you’ll launch Daydream Home, which will let you open apps from Netflix, Hulu, and IMAX, or games from EA, Ubisoft, and more. It’s clean and comfortable, a lot like Oculus Home. All Bavor would say was “there are some really neat things in the works,” but given how much is already in Cardboard, the Daydream ecosystem is going to be big from day one.
Google’s been hinting at this move for a while: The Android N code identifies apps as either “VR listeners” or “VR helpers.” That likely means any app will be able to launch a VR mode, and that you’ll be able to get notifications while you’re in VR, much as you do in Samsung’s Gear VR. In Google’s view, VR isn’t a wholly separate thing, buried in its own apps with its own app store. It’s something every developer, every app, can tap into. Any “Daydream-ready” phone, which is basically any high-end phone–Bavor says phones from Samsung, Huawei, LG, Xiaomi, and others are already in the works–can run VR mode in Android. The way YouTube now lets you instantly switch and watch any video in a virtual reality theater, other apps could do the same.
That’s right in line with Google’s normal way of thinking. At these beginning stages, the company has been involved in every facet of virtual reality. But long term, “I don’t think they want to make VR experiences,” says Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “They want to create VR platforms.” Using Android rather than developing something wholly new instantly gives Google an massive audience for its virtual-reality products.
Right now, VR has a difficult chicken-and-egg problem: the best VR experiences are time-consuming and expensive to create, and nowhere near enough people use the tech to pay for it. But until there’s more to do and see, not much inspires otherwise-uninclined buyers to rush out to Best Buy and drop $1,500 on a high-end headset and a PC to power it. By turning VR support into a software update for many of the billion-plus Android devices in use, though, Google may have just circumvented that whole problem.
Software for the Billions
Android VR is supposed to be everywhere, and will come in lots of different shapes and sizes. Google clearly wants the VR ecosystem to work like smartphones, in which Google doesn’t build a headset but instead powers a hundred others. In that metaphor, Oculus would be the Apple of VR, the company building the fully integrated walled-garden experience–which makes Google, well, the Google of VR. Just as Google has the Nexus program for its smartphones, meant to showcase how good the hardware can be, the company’s also building VR headsets with partners to set the bar for everyone else.
Google created a reference design for a headset, and for a super-simple handheld controller, that will make navigating in VR a lot easier. The headset looks like a hybrid of a Gear VR and Oculus Rift–if it works right, these headsets will both improve and solve for some of your smartphone’s current capabilities. “First of all, your phone wasn’t meant to do VR,” Bavor says. Things like motion controls and positional tracking just aren’t quite up to the right standards yet. Don’t be surprised if Google’s next Nexus phones are–that’s what being Daydream-ready could be all about. But for now, the headset is likely to do a lot more of the work. Meanwhile, the tiny controller is all swipes and taps and motion; while its form factor is nearly identical to the Oculus Remote packaged with the Rift, it’s able to be tracked in space.
You’re forgiven for being disappointed that the new headsets won’t be a splashy, high-end, OMG-amazing device meant to compete with the Rift or Vive. It’s not even a standalone, Android-based headset with phone-quality components that sits somewhere between the Gear VR and the Rift. In reality, they’re just (much) better versions of Cardboard: a dock for your phone that turns it into a headset. Actually, it’s not even that yet; right now it’s just a developer tool, something for people to use as a testing machine while they build virtual-reality experiences. But once again, this is what Google has said all along. “In VR, I felt very strongly that mobile, mobile, mobile was going to be it,” Bavor says. “There would be early, neat things you could do when you have a computer that’s hooked up to a power plant, and cables and so on, but that wasn’t what was going to reach scale and have the kind of impact I wanted our team to have.”
And make no mistake: mobile VR is, at least for now, the way most people will experience the technology. A million people used a Gear VR last month, according to Oculus, which is certainly far more than who connected the expensive Rift to their expensive computer and then connected it to their faces. Besides, Gear VR only works with Samsung phones; with Daydream and Android, Google could eventually target an even bigger market.
Of course, Android’s biggest problem has always been fragmentation. Even as Google launches a new version of Android, only 7 percent of devices are running last year’s model, Marshmallow. And that’s just the OS; given the epic mishmash of Android devices on the market, not every phone will be high-end or perfectly optimized. Your Moto X runs Android–hell, your Amazon Fire Phone runs Android–but that doesn’t make it your on-ramp to the Holodeck.
Still, Blau says, that’s OK: “There’s going to be a lot of people who experience VR for the first time, or the first few times, and that lower-quality experience is not going to matter one bit.” That will change, obviously, but it’ll take a while. And until the novelty wears off, Google’s free to experiment, because it really can’t lose. Contrary to what some might say, for most people, any VR is awesome VR.
With little more than a piece of cardboard and an app, Google has fashioned the most popular virtual-reality platform on the planet–one that’s also, thanks to Street View and YouTube and Google Earth, the most complete. With Android and Daydream, that ecosystem could quickly become a lot bigger and at least a little better. It sounds small, but as Bavor reminds me, “We’re in year one. Or year zero. Or whatever.” Give it a few more years and a few more biggers and betters, and VR could be everywhere–and perfect–sooner than you think.