The Thing to Know About Google Daydream

At its annual I/O developer conference this week, Google unveiled a bold new virtual reality initiative that will reach consumers this fall. It’s called Daydream, and it’s more than just a headset.

The company has already launched a VR ecosystem, of course, on the back of the $15 Google Cardboard headset. And that effort has generated VR apps that have logged more than 50 million downloads. But Google thinks there’s room for a higher-quality smartphone-powered experience. One that's still affordable for most consumers. That’s where Google Daydream comes in.

On the surface, it sounds like a simple upgrade. But it's not. In fact, it's not about the hardware. (Google will let others manufacture that.) It's about the platform.

With Daydream, Google is hoping to spur interest in high-quality VR development for the various smartphones that will soon be running its new Android N operating system. Yes, consumers can expect to see new VR headsets in the coming months. And, yes, better VR apps, too. But, to enjoy all that, you’re going to have to buy a new phone.

Daydream Ready

Unlike Google Cardboard, Google Daydream is designed exclusively for Android smartphones, though not the one you currently own. To access the VR content, you’ll need a device that meets Google’s minimum Daydream-ready requirements and, as of yet, those are undisclosed.

What we do know is that Android N has a “VR Mode” that reduces latency (the delay between when you move your head to shift your gaze and what appears on the screen before your eyes) to prevent motion sickness and it even allows you to see your notifications while using VR apps. Things like that require a high-resolution display with low latency, high-performance processors, and high-quality sensors to preserve the illusion, all without dropping your phone calls.

According to Clay Bavor, head of the virtual reality team at Google, several Daydream-Ready phones will be available later this year. Eventually, the lineup will include models manufactured by Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei, ZTE, Alcatel, Xiaomi, and Asus.

As for the Google Daydream headsets and controllers, Google has created model designs that third-party manufacturers can use to make their own products, just as the company did with Cardboard. The proposed headset looks very similar to Samsung’s Gear VR, which makes sense, since it too will require a phone inside it to operate. The first model made to Google’s Daydream specifications will be released in the fall, says the company.

The Google Daydream controller is reminiscent of the one included with the Oculus Rift headset; a two-button remote with a clickable touchpad at the top, it looks like it can easily fit in a pocket (which means it can easily get lost, too).

Google has game developers such as Ubisoft lined up to produce content for the devices, but don’t limit your imagination. HBO, Hulu, and IMAX are also partners. And YouTube, Google Photos, and Google Street View all offer VR content.

The big question, it seems, is whether people will rush out to buy a new $600 Daydream-ready phone to give that content a try. (According to Google, not even the Samsung Galaxy S7—as of May 2016, the top-ranked phone in our smartphone Ratings—is up to snuff.) But, don't forget, the Samsung Gear VR headset was only compatible with one smartphone model when it launched in late 2015. And, when you compare the cost of a new Android N phone to the roughly $1,500 upgrade required for a typical desktop VR setup, it's not such a crazy idea. Not for good VR.

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