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Say goodbye to Google's Daydream VR experiment

Google helped kickstart people's interest in virtual reality. Now it's giving up.

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Google has awoken from its Daydream.

James Martin/CNET

What began as a way for Google to compete against Facebook's high profile Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, Sony's PlayStation VR and Samsung's Gear VR came to an end Tuesday, when the search giant admitted its Daydream VR program wasn't popular among consumers and would be ending.

Google's original vision for Daydream was to let people take high-end phones like its Pixel line and pop them into relatively cheap headsets. The phone screens would then be so close to people's eyes that in combination with VR apps, they'd trick these people's brains into believing they were in the computer-generated world. And the phone's processing chips would power the experience.

The result would mean people who already own expensive phones could pay less than $100 for a VR headset.

"We saw a lot of potential in smartphone VR -- being able to use the smartphone you carry with you everywhere to power an immersive on-the-go experience," Google said in a statement earlier reported by VentureBeat. But over time we noticed some clear limitations constraining smartphone VR from being a viable long-term solution."

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Google's choice to discontinue its Daydream headsets effectively marks an unceremonious end for smartphone-powered VR headsets. Though the idea behind turning a phone into a VR headset made sense, and offered a cheap way for consumers to have their first experience with the technology, it just didn't catch on.

It wasn't for lack of trying though. Samsung as well was offering its Gear VR headset at the time, offering a similar experience that was powered by Facebook's Oculus software and app store. Google also had its Cardboard headset, built with low-cost lenses and, yup, folded cardboard, making it a popular marketing tool and part of corporate goodie bags. Even The New York Times gave away more than a million Google Cardboard headsets to subscribers in 2015 and 2016.

Not all low-cost VR is gone though. Google says its existing Daydream headsets will continue to work with older phones if you have them, and on its site Google still offers instructions on how to make a Cardboard viewer. Facebook also offers a low-power version of its headsets, called Oculus Go, for $199.

As for the future, Google said it plans to focus efforts on emerging augmented reality technology, which overlays computer images on the real world. It already offers AR navigation tools for its Google Maps, as well as real-time print translation tools and other features for its Google Lens service.

CNET's Richard Nieva contributed to this report.