Google is betting that its Daydream platform for mobile virtual reality—announced last week at Google I/O 2016—will be good enough, its performance will evolve faster and its price will drop faster than immersive VR headsets such as the top-tier Oculus and HTC Vive.
Given a choice between a perfect immersive VR headset that costs at least $1,800, plus a PC upgrade, or good mobile VR like Google Daydream that stretches the smartphone upgrade budget by only a few hundred dollars, all but the most serious enthusiasts will choose Daydream.
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All the public attention shining on VR right now isn’t hype. It is genuine consumer excitement over their first sensations of feeling they are really present in a VR game or movie. The more powerful the headset, the greater the excitement from a more realistically rendered virtual experience. Google’s Daydream mobile VR platform announcement asks the question: what is powerful enough?
The potential for mobile VR is underestimated
The potential for mobile VR has been underestimated based on the unpredictable performance of Google Cardboard.
Cardboard, the most widely distributed form of VR, is really just a folded piece of cardboard with a couple of lenses into which almost any Android or iOS phone can be inserted to deliver a short, sometimes shaky introduction to VR. The quality of the cardboard experience could be OK if the fastest phone with the highest resolution display were used, but the experience could easily be compromised with an old slow smartphone.
The high-quality immersive VR from Oculus and HTC Vive is achieved by running highly optimized computationally intensive VR apps on high-performance PCs and displaying the results in the tethered headset.
Nothing compares to immersive VR when it comes to giving the subject a sense of presence in a computed reality. The low-quality mobile VR delivered with a $10 Google Cardboard and a 3-year-old smartphone can’t and shouldn’t be compared.
Enter the Daydream platform
Paraphrasing Google’s VR chief Clay Bavor’s description of the Daydream platform, mobile VR with a sub-20ms latency that renders video at 60fps won’t produce an inferior VR experience.
Bavor didn’t quite say it that way, but he meant it because the specs fall into the range of the immersive VR category that touts sub-20ms latency rendered at 90fps.
Daydream isn’t a headset. It is a smartphone reference design that Google will use to certify the VR-readiness of partners’ smartphones. It specifies the performance characteristics of high-performance sensors and hardware, a reference design for a headset for the Daydream-compatible smartphones: Google N with VRMode that is optimized for running VR apps and a VR hand-tracking controller. The reference design persuaded Samsung, HTC, Huawei, LG, ZTE, Asus, Alcatel and Xiaomi to produce Daydream-specified headsets and hand controllers.
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VR latency is very important. It is the time it takes for the app to reorient the video that is projected in the headset when the head-tracking sensors detect that the subject has changed its point of reference. The gold standard is the headset reorients what is displayed in the headset and 3D directional sound in fewer than 20ms to prevent the subject from feeling uncomfortable.
Latency is more important than frame rate in producing a comfortable VR experience. Subjects can have varying degrees of discomfort in VR, with some subjects feeling nauseous. But latency is the primary cause. VR game enthusiasts refer to the ability to sustain extended periods in VR as VR-legs, analogous to the ability to sustain long periods of choppy seas in a boat is called sea-legs. Game console manufacturers have set 60fps as the bottom limit for comfortable immersive video.
Waiting for the killer VR app
Optimal VR hardware won’t be designed until the killer VR app is discovered. What is the killer VR app? Games, VR adventures, VR cinema or something else? The killer app is a work in progress. To accelerate the amount of available content to support headset sales, VR headset vendors have partnered with VR authoring system companies such as Unreal and Unity that grew from authoring 2D games to authoring 3D and VR content.
The dependency on Unreal, Unity and other authoring tools prove an important point. Headset hardware is an expensive commodity now and will soon become an inexpensive commodity.
Divide and conquer
If Google’s bet pays off, Daydream will segment the VR market in its favor. Mobile VR and immersive VR markets will differ as much as console games and mobile games. But the segments represent a consumer decision and a VR content developer decision.
For consumers, it’s a price, performance and content availability decision. For VR content developers, the decision is more serious. Oculus, Vive, Daydream and other platforms are incompatible except for the legacy authoring tools inherited from the console game business that bridges different core development environments.
VR might just be an incremental game and 3D video improvement of on top of what has been developed with legacy authoring tools today that won’t require new software development tooling. But if VR emerges to be creatively different, then the decade-old console game development tools will need a radical update or an entirely new development environment that will favor Android N and Daydream’s robust development environment and tool chain.