Starting off as a Google “20% Innovation Time Off” project by David Coz and Damien Henry at the Google Cultural Institute, Paris, the Google Cardboard was initially taken as a joke response to the Oculus Rift (HTC Vive was unknown at the time) when it was handed out to all attendees of the Google I/O developers event in 2014.
Compromising of a cardboard wrapper and magnetic button (that only worked with certain Android phones), the Google Cardboard opened the way to mobile, untethered Virtual Reality (VR) utilising something that many people already had in their pockets, rather than cumbersome, expensive PCs. A Cardboard V2 was released last year that utilises a conductive strip as a button instead of a magnet, so it now works with iPhones as well as Android devices.
Skip forward to this year, over 5 million Google Cardboard VR head-mounted displays (HMDs) have been issued, most notably by New York Times sending one out to every subscriber as part of their 360º news service launch, with over 1,000 Cardboard VR apps available on the Google Play Store.
The software development kit (SDK) has grown in strength, with popular game engines such as Unity providing quick and easy prototyping and development environments, backed up by example source code packages and apps demonstrating best practice for VR design.
Primarily though, the Google Cardboard design is hindered by current iterations of Android having to keep all the other phone services in check and the single button input offered by the HMD, meaning that the most popular apps are VR-lite in that they offer no positional tracking, tracked input and revolve mostly around 360º videos and photos. Whilst games exist, a generational leap was required to take Google Cardboard offerings to the next level.
This is where Google Android N mobile operating system (OS) and the just announced Daydream VR platform comes in.
Google Daydream VR
Daydream has been designed as a VR platform, baked into Android N and beyond, that counters all the issues with Google Cardboard SDK, meaning that it will be integrated into the OS and allow the certified devices to be switched into a VR-mode, so the focus of the device can be solely providing the best mobile VR experience without all the phone features sucking away performance. Beyond just the software, Daydream encompasses hardware, viewers, controllers and experiences as one mobile VR ecosystem.
Google plans to certify mobile handsets as being Daydream compatible, working with hardware manufacturers, i.e. Samsung, LG, Huawei and Xiaomi amongst others, to ensure that their Android phones are using the best chipsets to ensure low latency, sensors for tracking requirements and processing power available for VR. However Google have also confirmed that they are working on their own headset to launch alongside Daydream in Fall (Autumn) 2016 (likely November).
This may sound a little similar to the offerings already available from Samsung in the form of the Gear VR mobile HMD, that also only works with a small range of certified Samsung mobile devices, includes a touchpad input and dedicated VR hardware to improve the experience over Google Cardboard. In many ways it is, and it will be interesting to see how Samsung handles their Gear VR support and Daydream support, being listed partners, against existing deals with Oculus.
However the Samsung Gear VR integration into Android is more of a system app than an ecosystem, built upon Samsung’s own take on Android, not within Android itself like Daydream is. Albeit coded by one of the finest programmers ever to have lived, John Carmack (of DOOM fame), who has heavily invested his own and Oculus’ time into making significant improvements to the feature set and performance of the Samsung Gear VR.
Also like Samsung Gear VR, Google have stated that the Daydream app store will be curated to ensure that only the best VR experiences are available to users, something currently missing from the Google Cardboard Play Store, where many similar apps exist with a wildly varying degree of performance and quality of experience and VR implementation. Like some of the Google Cardboard Play Store listings already, Daydream apps will have 360º “worldshots” to get beyond static images and video trailers to really showcase each app unique offerings and features to help users and promote VR more effectively.
Unlike the Samsung Gear VR, which has a trackpad on the side of the HMD, often resulting in sore right arms after prolonged use and multiple accidental taps of buttons, freezing videos and confusing new users, the Google Daydream VR ecosystem will require HMDs to be accompanied by a puck-like remote controller, offering an analogue trackpad, button inputs and 3 degrees of freedom (DOF) tracking using accelerometers and gyroscopes built-in.
Whilst not at the same levels of tracking accuracy and input control offered by HTC Vive or Oculus Touch controllers, it goes a long way to improving mobile VR input options, from simple pointing to select menus, buttons, objects to using the 3DOF to control virtual dragons or paint in VR space. Although the Gear VR supports bluetooth gamepad controllers, these don’t offer any levels of DOF and aren’t included as de facto meaning developers can’t rely on users owning one, whereas Daydream developers will know the mobile capabilities to base performance on and that each and every user will have a controller (as long as they haven’t lost it).
How to Develop for Daydream
Currently there are no physical headsets or dev kits available beyond the concept drawing revealed at Google I/O last week. However that doesn’t mean that you can’t start developing right away, if you have the required Google Nexus 6P mobile handset to use as a main display device and a variety of other mobile devices to act as the controller, you can start right away. You can even get a sticker to put over the screen to replicate the touchpad area and buttons to make it feel more representative of the final product.
Whereas the original Google Cardboard was designed with bite-sized, short VR experiences in mind, requiring one or both hands to hold the HMD up to a user’s face, the Daydream VR HMD concept design shows much-preferred headstraps being present to keep it positioned, allowing hands to be free to use the included controller. At present, it hasn’t been clarified whether two controllers can be used together, one for each hand but this is probably down to the limitations of how many Bluetooth devices can be paired at once.
To get a jump start on design, and to potentially save wasted efforts prototyping, take 30 minutes out to watch this excellent talk from Google I/O discussing 60 VR experiments the Daydream team concocted, showcasing early initial thoughts on controller usage and interactions.
Whilst there’s only 6 months until release of the hardware, and at present there’s no word or detail on final reference designs or which manufacturers beyond Google will be releasing HMDs to buy, or information about how these could differ from the base concept, it’s clear that Google has spent a considerable amount of time getting the toolsets and developer support in place ready to the reveal last week, to allow experienced VR developers to get up to speed quickly and easily, whilst remaining open and accessible enough to new developers alike. With support from Unity and Unreal 3D engines already present, it’s time to get cracking!
VR development is one of the most rewarding experiences, being able to quickly take a 3D model on a screen to leaping into a scene and being present within it. Now with the input controller included as standard, users can get immersed even more so than before.
Sam Watts has been involved in interactive, immersive content production for 15 years, from learning development and simulation to AAA and casual games. Currently employed as Operations Lead for Make REAL and Game Producer for Tammeka, he keeps busy by evangelising the possibilities and real world benefits of immersive technologies like VR and AR to anyone who will listen. Tammeka’s first VR game Radial-G : Racing Revolved launched alongside the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive earlier in 2016.
Google Daydream hub: https://vr.google.com/daydream/
Google VR Developer hub: https://developers.google.com/vr/
Google I/O Talk - 60 Daydream Labs VR Concepts: https://youtu.be/lGUmTQgbiAY
Google I/O Talk - VR Design Process: https://youtu.be/-mcXAMDch7s
Unity VR Tutorial: http://unity3d.com/learn/tutorials/topics/virtual-reality