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Requiem for a Daydream: RIP, phone VR

A visit to the grave of the Google and Samsung tech that used to be on my face.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
7 min read

Google's Daydream View. We had fun times.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In late 2014, I pulled CNET TV editor David Katzmaier into a conference room to show him a black plastic pair of goggles fitted over a Samsung phone. I seated him in a comfy swivel chair. I wanted to see what he thought of what I was about to show him, from a display perspective.

A few 3D 360-degree videos and virtual aquariums later, he was impressed as I was. I don't think anything wowed me more than those early Samsung Gear VR experiences. They were powered by a phone, they could be taken anywhere, and they just worked.

Nearly six years later, no one's putting phones into VR goggles anymore. One year after Google announced it was killing off Daydream, its own mobile phone-connected VR platform, Google's newest Android 11 phone OS no longer supports it at all. The Daydream View VR hardware vanished from Google's web store last year, and Google's phones stopped even working with Daydream since the Pixel 4.

The same happened for Samsung Gear VR. John Carmack, former CTO of Facebook's Oculus, which partnered with Samsung on Gear VR, delivered a eulogy for the now-vanished VR goggles last year. Gear VR has long vanished from Samsung's product events.

Sometimes this feels utterly weird to me, because phone VR seems like it would be the perfect distraction in 2020.

And yet, VR at large is still here. In fact, there have been a ton of new VR headsets lately: the Oculus Quest and Quest 2, the Valve Index and the HP Reverb G2. There are headsets that plug into PCs, and there are standalone headsets. There have been amazing VR games: Half-Life: Alyx, Star Wars: Squadrons. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is getting VR support, too.

Understanding why the Daydream and Gear VR have gone away means asking why Google, Facebook and Samsung have moved on from phone VR as a strategy. And, visiting the ghosts of mobile VR from the middle of the last decade.

This story was originally written last Halloween, but it's been updated now that Google has ended Daydream support completely in Android 11, and Halloween is around the corner again.


The Pixel 4 doesn't work with Daydream anymore.

James Martin/CNET

Google: Daydream shift

Google's head of Daydream VR and AR, Clay Bavor, told me in May 2019 that the company has been rethinking some of its bigger ideas in VR, with maybe something else new on the horizon. Google had a standalone version of the Daydream last year (which is no longer available), but nothing new to emerge alongside Facebook's Oculus Quest.

Google's response regarding the disappearance of the Daydream a year ago was, "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. But over time we noticed some clear limitations constraining smartphone VR from being a viable long-term solution. Most notably, asking people to put their phone in a headset and lose access to the apps they use throughout the day causes immense friction. There also hasn't been the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped, and we've seen decreasing usage over time of the Daydream View headset. While we are no longer selling Daydream View or supporting Daydream on Pixel 4, the Daydream app and store will remain available for existing users."

Now, Daydream is officially gone in Android 11 and will no longer work at all. 

Google's focus has largely shifted to practical phone AR tools for now, like Google Maps navigation and updates to Google Lens.

Samsung Gear VR 2017

Daydream (left) and Gear VR (right). It seems like yesterday.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Facebook: Making its own VR headsets now

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg made it clear to me at the company's Oculus VR developer conference a year ago that the standalone Oculus Quest would be the do-it-all headset for the future. In 2020, Facebook has re-emphasized that the Quest 2 is Facebook's only VR headset going forward. It works with PCs via a USB-C cable and is compatible with some older apps for Oculus Go, another VR headset Facebook stopped making.

In 2019, I listened to John Carmack give a pained goodbye to the Gear VR, saying that Samsung's headsets weren't ideal because of compromises required to fit a wider variety of Samsung phone screens. There were a lot of Gear VR variations, with an increasing number of little packed-in adapters to fit the Galaxy phones. 

For Oculus, the Gear VR was clearly a convenient marriage before the company was acquired by Facebook. It was a stepping stone. It was a way for Oculus to get a great display and a mobile platform. Samsung got Oculus' insight and VR ecosystem. But now that Facebook is encouraging potential customers to live entirely in Facebook's world, standalone headsets made by Facebook are the future... and they'll eventually evolve towards AR glasses next.


How do you fit this in VR goggles?

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung: Its phones keep evolving

VR was a wild idea for Samsung to show off alongside smartwatches at Galaxy phone events, years ago. Now, the focus has shifted: 5G. Folding phones. More elaborate cameras. Neither of those pair well yet with goggle-type VR headsets.

Samsung's response, from a year ago, to my question about what happened to the Gear VR: "Samsung Gear VR is not compatible with Galaxy Note10 and Note10 Plus. We remain committed to innovating in VR and AR to deliver incredible new experiences to our consumers. We believe 5G will enable the next growth of immersive content streaming for AR/VR, and that's where Samsung has been focused. For example, we created the Samsung XR Content Capture Studio, one of two studios in the US that is able to do 3D volumetric video, with state of the art equipment for producing AR and VR content. In September, we produced content with the Dallas Cowboys and AT&T for an immersive AR and 5G experience that fans can enjoy at the stadium throughout the season. At SDC 2019, we recreated one of the XR Content Capture Studios with partners in the immersive entertainment space to create new experiences, allowing developers to learn about our AR capabilities."

Qualcomm's recent explorations in mobile VR suggest a whole wave of phone-connected headsets coming in the next couple of years. If Samsung were to get back into VR, I'd expect that approach.

So, like Google, it's in a period of R&D. Who knows what will come next?

iPhones largely sat this one out

A number of unimpressive little iPhone-compatible VR goggles have cluttered stores, but none of them were better than the simple folding Google Cardboard devices. Apple didn't optimize iPhones for any set of VR goggles, like Samsung and Google. 

This meant that iPhone owners were pretty much out of the loop on the world of Gear VR and Daydream. 

And this, maybe, is what killed phone VR most of all: Your phone determined what you could use. A Samsung phone for the Gear VR. A particular Android phone for the Daydream. VR, a place where it's already hard to gather people, started to get fragmented.

New Samsung Gear VR for Note 8

Oh, the memories.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A great demo for grandparents and kids

Those YouTube videos of grandmas gasping with a VR headset on weren't staged: It was a thing. I remember showing my mother-in-law a Samsung Gear VR, and she was so amazed she considered getting one (briefly). 

My kids, when they were little, loved checking out demos, too. The simple look-around-and-stay-seated vibe of phone-based VR made it perfect for casual watching. So few of those early apps even had any way to interact, so I didn't have to worry about a kid having to point or click. 

Times have changed. VR headsets now come with elaborate controllers, like the Oculus Quest's button-studded things. I love them, but casual first-timers will have a hard time figuring out what to do. I've learned a different approach now: guiding them by seeing their actions streamed to my phone, where I can ride alongside and help them. 


Almost all VR now has full motion controls. (Oculus Quest)

Sarah Tew/CNET

VR is no longer about sitting still

My favorite experiences in VR involve waving my arms around and walking across a room. Hand tracking, controller tracking and full motion in space: These are possible because of self-contained systems that use cameras and computer vision. 

The Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View were sit-down experiences, where you'd just look around. The Gear VR and Daydream are still great for 360-degree movies. At film festivals like Tribeca in New York, the Gear VR is still used to play VR movies. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

But, the future of VR has spread out. And, at the same time, stopped being a thing used to try to sell phones. I loved using the Gear VR and Daydream View -- I still remember the weirdness of watching movies in a virtual theater, playing trippy games like Virtual Virtual Reality, going for little dives in virtual aquarium apps, playing poker with strangers and seeing how strangely intimate adult entertainment is. But I never wanted to carry either of them in my bag. And eventually I stopped wanting to drop a phone in or check on which apps needed to be updated.

I still use VR. But that dream of $99 plug-in-a-phone VR, well, it's dead now. The VR world has moved on to better things. Still, that world of phone-connected VR could come back again, in a new, more-advanced form. Phones and VR make sense together, but we may never have a moment where I drop my phone into a pair of goggles again.