The Daydream mobile virtual reality experience proves critics who call VR a fad wrong. Google’s new platform will attract many new apps and experiences and create new business models.
Daydream VR combined with the Pixel hardware’s powerful performance and thoughtful design of the headset will create a market of hundreds of millions of VR-capable phones. The Pixel is expensive, but the relentlessly declining price performance of mobile components will quickly bring affordability into alignment with consumers’ budgets.
Unique Pixel hardware enables premium VR
The Pixel hardware’s Snapdragon 821 CPU, Adreno 530 GPU and first-place Dxomark camera rating might position the smartphone in the flagship category among a lot of competition from great phones, such as the Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10. But inside it has a high-performance gyroscope and accelerometer, finely tuned with software algorithms that made a step-functional improvement in mobile VR.
Gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer fusion deliver accuracy that synchronizes the head movement with very low latency, rendering a high-quality VR experiences. Rendering a high frame rate at 60Hz is not hard at high resolution.
And Pixel designers and developers solved the hard problem of tracking head movement and changing the perspective of the user’s view while maintaining the frame rate and keeping the user spatially oriented with less than 20-ms delay.
Google also developed factory calibration processes and software calibration algorithms to ensure consistent high performance.
Daydream View headset and controller design aesthetics
Fast frame rates and low latency are the two features Google nailed in upgrading mobile VR to premium mobile VR. The controller and the Daydream view headset also contribute to the premium experience that is an improvement over the mobile VR market leader Samsung Galaxy Gear VR and make it competitive with the Oculus Rift desktop VR.
The flexible Daydream View headset simplifies alignment of the phone compared to Google Cardboard and the Gear VR. Just drop the phone into the headset, and the NFC chip inside the headset turns on Daydream VR and the Hall-effect sensor automatically aligns the screen with the lenses. The phone can be inserted quite far out of physical alignment, and the screen aligns perfectly from inside the headset.
Google cardboard needs the phone to be carefully aligned for the VR experience to feel right. The Gear VR has a heavy plastic headset that a Note 5 or Galaxy S6 or S7 snaps into with a USB connector, which is much less comfortable or convenient compared to the flexible and soft Daydream View headset.
Sometimes the Gear VR USB connection fails; the user notices from inside the headset that the phone is in phone-mode, not VR-mode. To fix that, the headset must be removed and the phone taken out and reinserted. The simplicity of dropping the Pixel into the headset, closing the cover and immediately starting Daydream VR mode on the phone cannot be overstated.
The Daydream controller has a very comfortable and lightweight minimalist design. It has a touchpad-like button, an application button (right-click mouse button) and a home button that returns the user to the top-level menu. The overall performance and three degrees of freedom (3DOF) works well, though there is a bit of drift that can easily be corrected by pressing the home button.
The Cardboard does not have a controller.
The controller mounted on the side of the Gear VR is much less intuitive and is less than optimal when a game, experience or virtual keyboard requires frequent inputs. The Gear VR’s line-of-sight pointer is efficient and accurate. Ideally, if a simple and intuitive transition between the Daydream handheld controller pointer to a line-of-site pointer could be designed, Daydream would have the best of both platforms.
The unified design of the Pixel, controller and headset really work well together. The controller fits into a storage compartment in the headset when not in use to prevent it from beint misplaced or forgotten between uses.
The Daydream experience within the limits of 3DoF feels like the Oculus Rift that costs much more and is constrained by its tether to an expensive PC. This needs to be qualified with the clarification that there are just five Daydream VR apps and five Google VR adapted services, which prevents an app-to-app comparison with the Oculus Rift—so the frame rates and latency could not be compared.
Both the Daydream and Rift can be made to leave artifacts in the user’s view with really fast and hard head movements. It would be interesting to measure the tolerance of both head tracking systems with the same app running on both. If Daydream supported two controllers, it could be a very competitive alternative to Oculus Rift desktop VR. Maybe a mod for the second controller could appear either from Google or the community.
Wiley Corning at the MIT Media Lab, who contributed his wealth of VR cross-platform experience, found that with the home button, the controller could be reoriented to any comfortable position. So, the user does not have to hold the controller with arm extended for an uncomfortably long time. The controller can be held in any comfortable physical orientation during extended use, and the pointer can be aligned to point forward, though the controller’s physical orientation is not.
Battery life during testing lasted about four hours, and the Pixel XL charged quickly with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0. After running the Pixel non-stop at the MIT Media Lab while a number of people stressed the Pixel with persistent and intensive use, an overheating warning came on screen. This is a corner case that few users will likely experience.
Unity Daydream development accelerates app development
A lot of apps will follow because Unity and Google created a very useful development environment. Drop in a prefab viewer and controller and import the Daydream SDK, and the VR developer can build with an emulated controller running on an Android phone, emulate the view through the headset lenses and move the camera perspective around the scene.
The future of VR and AR
The Pixel camera piques one’s curiosity. What could be done with it if it were exposed? Could Daydream create an augmented reality (AR)? Surely a developer will drill a hole in the headset and try.
Less a matter of curiosity and more a matter of future sensor development is the next generation of mobile VR augmented with a 3D camera and sensors—like the Tango camera that gives machine vision a human-like understanding of 3D space.
This also could add inside-out tracking, enhancing the experience with six degrees of freedom (6DoF) that would track the user’s movement around the room. Inside-out tracking is an open problem for mobile VR that will make it competitive with the top-tier HTC Vive. Today, 6DoF is implemented on the Vive with two ceiling or tower-mounted base stations emitting IR laser pulses that are read by the headset to track head movement and physical movement. Inside-out tracking would not need base stations, but it is a much harder problem to solve than head tracking with gyroscope and accelerometer fusion adding sensors and more computational overhead.
Daydream has given a boost to mobile VR. The Pixel XL is a top-tier priced phone. The price of the phones will drop quickly over the next couple of years. In a year, prices on Daydream-capable phones will drop into the midrange, and in two years it will be hard to find a phone that doesn’t have this capability—except the lowest budget-priced phones. Hundreds of millions of Daydream phones will make this an important platform and will attract developers who will fill the Google Play Store with many apps and experiences.