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Daydream VR is Google's new headset -- and it's not what you expected

Google wants to create the Android of VR, by encouraging phonemakers to build around its new hardware and software platform.

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Now Playing: Watch this: Meet Daydream, Google's vision for virtual reality
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Google was widely expected to introduce the "Nexus" of virtual reality headsets at this year's developer conference. That's not exactly what happened.

Instead of creating a single standalone piece of VR headgear with its own built-in computer, Google is launching a hardware and software platform -- dubbed Daydream -- to help any Android smartphone manufacturer create a VR headset themselves.

Google is running off the same Android playbook, where the online search giant provided the software infrastructure necessary to help 400 hardware manufacturers create 4,000 different devices. Eventually, Android became the world's dominant mobile operating system with Google rarely creating its own hardware.

The hope is that Daydream could become the de facto standard for mobile VR, helping the burgeoning and still pricey new technology to go mainstream sooner rather than later. Google is just the latest to place a big bet on virtual reality, an area that has drawn heavy hitters such as Facebook and Samsung.

For now, Daydream is just a sketch.

Google

The formula: a high-end smartphone, a new version of Android with a dedicated VR mode, and a lightweight headset and accompanying motion controller designed by Google itself. Much like with Google's Cardboard, a cheap VR viewer literally made out of cardboard, you'll stick your smartphone inside the headset before you attempt to step into another world.

But with Daydream, Google believes a more comfortable viewer, intuitive controller, a set of rigid requirements for the smartphone and new optimizations in the Android N software will help manufacturers deliver "the best smartphone-based mobile VR experience" on the market.

A mockup of the Daydream homescreen.

Google

Aside from adding a strap to keep a Daydream headset on your head -- Cardboard had none -- the primary hardware and software improvements are about addressing what's known as the "motion-to-photon latency," the delay that can keep VR images from properly lining up with your head as you move and turn.

Google will enforce performance requirements for Daydream phones: if they don't provide what Google considers to be a comfortable experience, the new VR mode in Android N won't even turn on.

Similarly, manufacturers will need to bundle the Daydream controller with every headset sold. While that controller won't let users reach out and grab things like they can with the wands included with the $800 HTC Vive, Google mockups show it working as a pointer, a fishing rod, and a wand to cast spells.

daydream-controller-gif.gif

What using the Daydream controller might be like.

GIF by Sean Hollister/CNET

Daydream-ready phones, including the $499 (£449, AU$899) Nexus 6P smartphone, will run Google's own applications dressed up for VR, including Google Photos, Google Street View, Google Play Movies, and a version of YouTube.

But Google isn't dreaming alone. Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei, Alcatel, ZTE, Xiaomi and Asus have all signed up to produce Daydream-ready phones. An initial list of software partners includes Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Imax, MLB, the NBA, CNN, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and a list of 10 game developers includes two big names: Ubisoft and Electronic Arts.

An early look at the YouTube VR app's interface.

YouTube

Clay Bavor, the leader of Google's VR division, believes a full Daydream kit will cost somewhere around the same amount as a Samsung Gear VR setup -- currently the benchmark for mobile VR experiences -- which retails for $800 (roughly £550 or AU$1,100) including a headset and recent Samsung Galaxy S7 phone.

You can read more about Google's Daydream in our full inside story.