A glimpse inside Google's VR Daydream

Cardboard, Google’s cheap virtual reality headset, provided a peek into the future. Google’s VR chief Clay Bavor is now touting Daydream, the next step in the company’s VR plan. The thing is, Daydream is only a sketch on paper — at least until the fall.

Clay Bavor, Google's virtual reality chief, taps his right temple with his index finger. Tap. Tap. Tap. "This is really awkward," he says.

He's right. If you've ever had a chance to try out Glass, the much-maligned smart eyewear Google thought would usher in the next wave of computing, you'd know that tapping a gadget mounted next to your forehead made the whole experience feel a little weird. It's the same with Google Cardboard, the clever-if-crude VR headset Google introduced in 2014 that's made of, well, cardboard. To get it to work, you hold it in place with one hand and tap down on a single button at the top of the viewer with the other.

Now Bavor tells us to picture a VR experience from Google with no tapping.

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"We've taken a very different approach," says Google's VR chief, Clay Bavor. "We've approached the whole thing much more like something you wear — a piece of clothing rather than this gizmo. [The] phone slips into it in seconds, and then you could be in another world."

It's kind of hard to imagine, given that Cardboard isn't going away and there are about 10 million of them out there, which means lots of people still reaching up to click. But Bavor says he and his team have come up with a new approach for moving VR from novelty to a mainstream movement — and tapping your headset isn't part of the plan.

Instead, Google is betting big on a combination of a high-powered smartphone, a new version of Android enhanced for VR (codenamed Android N) and a lightweight VR headset with a simple handheld remote control for navigating through virtual worlds. That adds up to a hardware and software platform Google calls "Daydream."

"This is night and day from Cardboard, in terms of the level of experience, the level of comfort, the level of quality," says Bavor, who helped dream up Cardboard and was tapped by Google CEO Sundar Pichai to head a newly created VR division in January. "We intend to have the best smartphone-based mobile VR experience. Full stop."

For now, we have to take Google's word for it. Even though his team has worked with a shoemaker, fabric companies and the manufacturer of a popular sleep mask to spec out a "super comfortable," headset design, Bavor isn't ready to show us any prototypes. Instead, we — and everyone else tuning into Google's annual I/O developer conference Wednesday — got our first glimpse of Daydream as a barebones sketch that depicts a viewer with a wide headstrap, a clasp (instead of the Velcro used to hold your phone inside Cardboard) and a small remote with a single button and trackpad.

"We want this to be accessible, affordable and approachable to everyone," says an animated Bavor, sporting thick-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses and a long-sleeve shirt that blends in with the gray industrial vibe of the building in the Googleplex where we meet. "You just pick it up and then you immediately know how to use it."

Getting "everyone" to pick it up means building Daydream around a device billions of people are already comfortable using: their phone. It also means convincing them to hold off buying VR gear already on the market from Facebook's Oculus and HTC or even a similar smartphone-based setup from one of Google's biggest partners, Samsung.

The Android of VR

Google plans to release its own Daydream viewer and controller this fall. But its VR ambitions aren't based on selling you hardware. Instead, Google is counting on partners to push its VR goals by building headsets, remotes and phones that work with Android N, run new YouTube VR software and tie into Google's Play Store.

That approach — design it while others build it — is the same tack Google's taken with Android. Although Google designs the software and offers hardware examples, like its Nexus phones, it relies on handset makers like Samsung, LG and HTC to build lots of devices. Those handset makers use Android and, as important, promote Google's other services — maps, search, the Chrome Web browser and YouTube — as part of their licensing deal.

The strategy worked. Over 400 hardware partners produce 4,000 different devices, making Android the world's most popular mobile software. It now powers four out of every five smartphones on the planet.

But leaving it to partners to handle the hardware means everyone may not enjoy the same experience from phone to phone.

To avoid that problem, Google will strictly certify the phones and VR gear that aim to deliver a Daydream experience. These specially made phones will need to be tricked out with distinctive displays, new sensors and enough processing power to create the illusion of transporting you to another world. Only then will they get Google's endorsement as worthy enough to run the VR-specific features in Android N.

"It's not shades of gray," Bavor says. "Either the phone meets those specifications or it doesn't. If it meets them, then the phone can tip into, as we call it, VR mode. If it doesn't meet spec, it can't."

Before that can happen, though, Google has got to convince handset makers to pony up for the components Daydream needs. The sensors and optics shouldn't add much to the bill of materials, says Bavor. "These are not cost-additive decisions. [It's] just designing the smartphone intentionally to be good at being a smartphone, and being good at being the core of the VR device."

Even so, Bavor pauses when asked if we can expect Daydream-ready phones from partners by the end of the year. He says we can. Some of Google's biggest partners — including Samsung, HTC, ZTE, Huawei, Xiaomi, Alcatel, Asus and LG — say they will offer Daydream-ready phones starting in the fall.

Until those phones arrive, Daydream-ers will need to run the system off of one of the few VR-capable phones out there — Google's $499 Nexus 6P, made by Chinese handset maker Huawei.

'A very different approach'

Google says the Daydream headset will be a lot more polished than Cardboard, although the company is sparse on the details.

Like its paper predecessor, the Daydream viewer will turn your phone's display into a VR screen. We don't know what it will be made of — though it likely won't be scrap postage material. After working with those shoe- fabric- and eye mask-makers, Google says it came up with a headset design that's comfortable, adjustable and lightweight (since all the chips and processing will be in the phone). It will be easy to put on and take off, and easy to slip your phone in and out of.

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CNET News' Editor in Chief, Connie Guglielmo, talks to Clay Bavor ahead of this year's Google I/O.

"We've taken a very different approach," says Bavor. "We've approached the whole thing much more like something you wear — a piece of clothing rather than this gizmo. [The] phone slips into it in seconds, and then you could be in another world."

You enter that world through Daydream Home, where you can plunge into different VR experiences like Google's Street View, Play Store, Play Movies and Photos.

This fall, you'll also find a new YouTube app, built specifically for VR, that will have a special front-and-center section for 360-degree videos. Those videos are designed to work closely with Daydream's controller, said Kurt Wilms, YouTube's lead product manager working on VR. The idea: You'll be able to wave the remote in front of you to pan left, right, up and down through a 360 video, instead of having to turn your head. The remote means you won't have to suffer discomfort from craning your neck.

Bavor is enthusiastic about the controller, too, saying it will include sensors that give a "sense of orientation" and allow it to work as a pointer. Imagine, he says, using it as a kind of VR "magic wand that you can use to cast spells."

Just know that the Daydream controller won't let you reach out and grab things in VR. While pricier VR systems let you lean in close to objects, grab them and sometimes even walk around them, the initial version of Daydream won't include the sensors that allow you to do that, says Bavor.

Better late than never

Google's top executives — Pichai, Bavor and Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer — make it clear VR is a big part of Google's future. Case in point: VR is an independent unit within Google, and Bavor reports directly to CEO Pichai.

More advancements are on the way. Bavor's also in charge of Project Tango, Google's effort to get 3D mapping technology into phones and tablets. "Tango is part of Daydream," Bavor says, when asked how Tango will intersect with Google's VR plans. "You can connect the dots."

Lenovo is set to introduce the first Tango phone next month.

Yet despite the fanfare that's sure to greet Daydream, Google is behind in VR, especially compared to rival Facebook. Oculus, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg bought two years ago for $2 billion, started taking orders for its $600 Rift headset last month. Current wait time to get your hands on a Rift, which connects to a high-powered PC to deliver immersive graphics, is three months.

HTC, which makes Android phones, also began selling its $800 Vive motion-tracking headset last month. It requires a high-powered PC, like the Rift, and has two motion controllers, two laser-emitting boxes that scan your room to create the boundaries of your virtual play space, earbuds, mounting brackets for the laser boxes, power adapters and lots and lots of cables. CNET reviewer Scott Stein says it delivers the "best VR experience you can have right now, if you've got the space."

And Sony says its $399 PlayStation VR, now due in October, will work with a $350 PlayStation 4 to power it.

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Users will enter Google's virtual reality through Daydream Home, where they can plunge into different VR experiences like Google's Street View, Play Store, Play Movies and Photos.

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Demand for these products could start off hot and then become blistering. Worldwide shipments of all VR hardware "will skyrocket" this year to 9.6 million units, says researcher IDC, and expand to 64.8 million units by 2020.

Bavor won't say what a Daydream setup will cost. But the headset's closest cousin on the market is Samsung's $99 Gear VR, which works with a $700 Samsung phone. That gives you a smartphone-based VR system for about $800. Bavor says you can expect the price for a Daydream phone, viewer and remote to be "in or around there."

"If there's any challenge [for Google], it's going to be getting developers on board. A lot of VR developers have already picked their platforms," says Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner who focuses on consumer tech. "What is it going to bring to the equation that Samsung or Facebook hasn't brought?"

Gearing up against Samsung?

It's impossible to say right now how Daydream will stack up against Samsung's Gear VR, commonly cited as the best VR experience you can get from a phone. But Bavor is confident Daydream makes it easy for other phone makers to get in the VR game.

"If you just take a stock Android phone that wasn't meant for VR and you put it in something like Cardboard, it's about 90 to 100 milliseconds of latency, way too much," Bavor explains, referring to the delay between the time you turn your head and the time the VR screen reflects what you should see. "To create an experience that's really comfortable, you need to be below 20 milliseconds."

Achieving that means Google is looking to many of the same components and techniques Samsung uses to deliver Gear VR. Samsung's Galaxy phones have powerful processors, "low-persistence" AMOLED screens and low-latency motion sensors specifically picked for VR (check out our VR glossary for what that all means). Like the new version of Android, they support a dedicated VR mode that lets VR apps directly access the phone's processor to display images in ways that reduce the chances of making you sick.

Ironically, if another phone manufacturer wants to challenge Samsung in the mobile VR arena, it may actually need Samsung's help. Samsung is the main supplier of the low-persistence AMOLED displays that can trick you into thinking you're somewhere else. In fact, Samsung accounts for 98.8 percent of the phone-size screens that have shipped, according to market researcher IHS.

The promise

Technical details aside, Google hopes VR will pique people's interests right away. VR content will start with games and entertainment because those industries are already comfortable with 3D graphics, says Nathan Martz, a Google product manager who works on VR developer tools.

The more aspirational stuff — actually working in VR, researching in VR, booking a trip, planning travel — comes later, Martz adds. "When we talk about a grand plan, that's where I'd like us to get to."

For Bavor, though, the promise of VR is concrete. Earlier this month he saw "Hamilton," the ultra-popular Broadway musical that's won a Pulitzer, a Grammy and set a record for Tony nominations. It's also sold out until next year. Few people will get to see the show, let alone with its original cast. But with VR, there's a way. "I'm not announcing something with 'Hamilton,'" says Bavor. "But I think we'll see more and more of these really valued, but pretty scarce experiences being captured in virtual reality."

That may be the first real benefit we can expect from VR. Because if you think you're getting real tickets to "Hamilton" anytime soon, pinch yourself. You're dreaming.