Did you watch the keynote today, where Google announced Android VR, along with its standalone VR headset? And did you catch our in-depth hands-on afterwards? Amazing! Okay, so that wasn't exactly how it went down – a stark reminder that leaks and rumors don't always line up with reality. What we saw instead was the announcement of an Android-based VR platform called Daydream, with no physical hardware in sight (yet). Let's take stock of what we do and don't know about Daydream.
Software now, hardware later
Multiple leaks had pointed to Google announcing its own standalone (Nexus?) VR headset alongside the software today, but that didn't happen – suggesting its launch was originally planned for I/O but was either delayed or shit-canned altogether.
All Google talked about on the hardware front were reference designs for headset-makers and promises that smartphone partners like Samsung, HTC and Huawei will be optimizing their Android N handsets to work with Daydream-ready headsets.
Whether we see a standalone headset at some point or not, it sounds like Gear VR-like smartphone-in-headset setups will be what Daydream is (mostly, if not entirely) about. And that makes sense – unless Google can check off our (stringent) list of requirements to make a killer product, we see little point in releasing a standalone headset just yet. Otherwise it's just another mobile virtual reality headset – only one where you have to buy a second "phone" that you can't take out of the headset. Why not just buy a hollow housing for the phone you've already paid for?
Either way, today is about planting seeds with developers, getting them to make the content that turns Android into a killer VR platform. It isn't there yet.
Well, technically Android is already the killer mobile VR platform, but the best content is locked inside the Samsung/Oculus walled garden that is the Gear VR. Google may not be able to break exclusive agreements between Oculus and key mobile VR developers, but it can encourage those devs, and new ones, to think about making money for their next games on two Android platforms, instead of just one, for the same amount of work.
About that controller
Google introduced a controller as part of its Android VR, erm, Daydream reference design. You'd be forgiven for thinking Mountain View had just stolen an Oculus Remote from the consumer Rift packaging and given it a white coat of paint, as it looks almost exactly like the pointer/clicker accessory that's bundled with Facebook's headset.
The big difference, though, is that, while the Oculus accessory only points and clicks for menu navigation, the Google control also allows for motion/gesture control within games. It's like Oculus' clicker accessory with a tiny bit of Vive controller or Oculus Touch functionality baked in.
A keynote demo video showed players using the remote for hand/object control inside games – doing things like casting a fishing line and guiding the head of an underwater serpent-like thingy.
But here's the million dollar question: can you use two of these suckers together? I don't know about you, but being one-handed in every single Daydream VR game doesn't sound like much fun. It needs to be motion controllers – plural, not singular – to make much sense. That question lingers.
The controller also needs to have not just gesture tracking, but high-quality gesture tracking. Sony's atrocious PS Move controls illustrate how much taking quality shortcuts on this front can deliver a watered-down virtual experience.
Even more than other mediums, VR has a way of exposing your shortcuts in a brutally obvious way. Your priority needs to be on delivering a seamlessly transportive experience – and only badass motion controls can do that. Since there were no hands-on ops with the controller, it remains to be seen which it is.
Positional tracking? Probably not
In our list of things that the (so far, vaporware) Google VR headset needed to be a killer product, our top requirement was positional tracking. With positional tracking, you can lean, stand, duck and crouch, maybe even walk inside virtual worlds, and be tracked accordingly. Without it (like on all mobile VR so far), your virtual world moves when you do – a quick reminder to your subconscious that you're playing a head-mounted video game and haven't really been teleported somewhere else. Nothing in today's announcement suggested Daydream will support body tracking of any kind, at least at first.
In the demo video shown at the keynote, the player's head positioning appeared to stay static (meaning rotational tracking, but no spatial movement), so we're betting no on this front ... for now.
Tune in tomorrow
Google has a VR talk scheduled early Thursday (9 am PT), where we may find out some answers to these questions. We'll be there, and will let you know if we learn anything new.
In the meantime, Daydream looks like a not yet fully formed next-step evolution of Google Cardboard – aiming no higher than a Gear VR-like functionality that works across all of Android, rather than just across Samsung phones. Our dreams of a badass standalone headset that hits a middle ground between mobile and PC-based VR doesn't appear to be in the cards anytime soon.