Google, Inside out

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.

by Richard Nieva and Connie Guglielmo
Published on May 18, 2016

C

lay 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.

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.

“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.”

Enjoy this read?

Sign up to be notified anytime CNET adds new special reports

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.”

The Language of VR

Click here to see a brief glossary of terms & phrases used in virtual reality.

The Language of VR: A brief glossary of the terms and technology behind virtual reality

360-degree video

A video that surrounds you, allowing you to turn and look in any direction. Also known as "spherical video." Some people argue that 360 video, while nice, isn’t real VR because it’s just a series of images stitched together. You can’t step into the video and look behind objects, for instance.

AMOLED

Active matrix organic light-emitting diode screens use electroluminescent pixels that create their own light to display vibrant colors, or turn off entirely to produce deep blacks. Used in high-end smartwatches, phones, tablets and TVs, AMOLED screens are key to displaying motion in VR without blurring. Samsung is the main supplier of phone-size AMOLED screens.

Cardboard

Google's first VR headset, literally made from cardboard. Simply place a phone inside the viewer, and hold Google Cardboard up to your face to watch VR movies. At $15, it’s the most affordable — and most popular — VR headset on the market. Roughly 10 million units have been distributed since Cardboard was introduced at Google I/O in 2014.

Daydream

Google's new platform is a combination of hardware — a viewer and remote control — and Google’s Android N mobile software. The platform is powered by specially designed high-end smartphones that will be certified by Google as Daydream-ready. Google will release the first Daydream viewer and controller in the fall. Daydream initially will work one of the only Daydream-capable phone on the market, the Google’s Nexus 6P.

Google Glass

Google’s first smart headset, released as a $1,500 prototype in 2013. Glass connects to the Internet and overlays images and graphics over what a wearer sees in the real world — but only inside a tiny glass cube suspended over the wearer’s right eye. The dorkiness of Glass, and wearers’ seeming disconnect from what was actually happening in front of them in the real world, gave rise to a nickname for early adopters of the tech: Glassholes.


Low latency

In computing, latency refers to the time it takes for us to perceive something that’s happened. That’s especially an issue in virtual worlds, which need to shift perspectives as you turn your head to keep you from getting sick.


Low persistence

Movies are just extremely fast sequences of still images (as slow as 24 frames per second for films). Your brain fills in the gaps. But when you turn your head in a VR headset, portions of the previous image can smear across your retina. A low-persistence screen will quickly fade to black between each image frame, for clear and crisp motion. Typically, that requires AMOLED technology. (See above.)


Positional tracking

Positional tracking lets users get close to virtual objects and grab them. It even allows them to walk around a room by keeping track of their head and hands in 3D space. So far, only high-end VR systems, like the $600 Oculus Rift, offer positional tracking.


Project Tango

With Project Tango, Google is developing phones that can see in 3D, using special cameras and sensors. The effort now falls under Google's VR division, but the company won't say what that means except to note Project Tango is part of Daydream. Lenovo will launch the first Project Tango phone this summer.


Timewarp

A computer graphics rendering technique used by Samsung, Facebook’s Oculus and now Google, which warps images before they’re sent to the display, to reflect any motions you’ve made while the computer was busy drawing the next picture. As a result, the virtual world lines up properly when you turn your head.


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.

00:00
--:--

What's in a daydream? If that Daydream is from Google, it's a hardware and software platform working with specially designed smartphones. The aim: A VR experience that might not include the heavy price tags, minus the smartphones, from rivals such as Facebook's Oculus or HTC's Vive.

“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.

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.

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.

“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.

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

00:00
--:--

Daydream will include a new, handheld remote that you can wave to pan left, right, up and down through a 360 video.

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.

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.


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.

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?”

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.

One Android to rule them all?

With Android N, Google steps up efforts to convince device makers to adopt the latest generation of its mobile software. Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer shares his take on what’s new — and how Google is trying to solve an old problem he calls the “F word.”

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.

CNET's Sean Hollister contributed to this report.

Richard Nieva

Richard Nieva is a senior reporter for CNET News, where he writes about everything from Google to Facebook to smartphone theft. He previously worked for Fortune magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.

Connie Guglielmo

Connie Guglielmo is editor in chief of CNET News and is responsible for overseeing a global team that covers breaking stories and also delivers analyses and features. She's a veteran tech reporter and editor who has worked in and around Silicon Valley for MacWeek, Wired, Upside, Interactive Week, Bloomberg News and Forbes.

Credits

Editorial
Connie Guglielmo
Richard Nieva
Rochelle Garner
Sean Hollister

Design
Mark Hobbs
Marc Mendell

Photography / Video
James Martin
Josh Miller
Mariel Myers
John Kim
Celso Bulgatti
Kelly Hendricks
Nic Henry
Bonnie Gannon
Jason Pepper
Lexy Savvides

Production
Justin Cauchon
Jeremy Toeman

internet

Alphabet? Google? Either way, it's ready to rumble

Google has always been light-years ahead of its time, thanks to its unconventional co-founders. They're shaking things up, again.

About CNET

/

Privacy Policy

/

Ad Choice

/

Terms of Use

/

Mobile User Agreement