This year's Google I/O may have fallen short of our lofty dreams of a fully standalone VR headset, but it did still paint a pretty clear picture of where Google is going with this stuff – and how that changes (and doesn't change) the consumer VR landscape.
Daydream is (much) more reactionary than innovative
Daydream, the branding for Android N's built-in VR component, is mostly about catching up with the Gear VR, presenting an open, platform-wide alternative. To say the Daydream announcement was a disappointment would be a little unfair, since we're comparing it to a leak- and rumor-fueled fantasy, something that even the best companies can never fully surpass, and only rarely match. But there still wasn't a lot for a VR early adopter to salivate over this week.
Daydream doesn't seem to be about pushing any boundaries – at least not as part of anything Google has announced so far. A Gear VR type of platform (insert phone in hollow housing, and presto – instant VR headset) that works with most high-end Android flagships, rather than just those made by Samsung, is a smart long-term business move. It's also the next logical step in Google Cardboard's transition into full-blown consumer VR.
But where was the magic? Where are the moonshots? Where's the holy shit, Google just owned this mobile VR game kind of stuff?
The only real differentiator at this point between Daydream headsets and the Gear VR – apart from the enormous gap in quality VR content the Play Store is facing – is a single gesture controller reference design. And yes, that's controller – singular – as far as we can tell. Prepare for a barrage of one-handed games, where your off-hand just hangs at your side like a dead fish.
... and we also have no idea how good the tracking is on the controller, as Google had nothing to demo this week. Is it Vive-level tracking or PS Move level tracking (or worse)? If it's the latter, then no thank you.
If Oculus and Samsung are already working on things like positional tracking and motion controls – plural – for the Gear VR, then Daydream shouldn't pose much of a threat anytime soon. So far it looks like Google's short-term VR aspirations are aiming a bit lower than we'd hoped, only catching up to today's mobile VR, rather than preparing to stand toe to toe with tomorrow's mobile VR. At the rate this stuff is moving, it will be here sooner than you think.
Closed Oculus now has an open rival on two platforms
Speaking of Oculus, Facebook's VR company is now officially playing the closed/walled garden role on both of its platforms, PC and mobile. Nothing has changed in Oculus' strategy, but Daydream now has a chance to play the equivalent of the SteamVR role on Android. Open platform that will eventually support a variety of headsets vs. closed platform tied to one brand of headset that banks on exclusives and brand awareness to lure you in.
In other words, Oculus is trying to be the iPhone of VR. The role of Android is being played by SteamVR and, in a meta starring as himself role, Google's Daydream.
The big difference is SteamVR launched on Windows with one utterly badass headset, which is clearly better than its walled garden rival. We've yet to see any Daydream hardware, and there was nothing in Google's announcement to suggest any of them will offer much beyond what we've already seen from the Gear VR, much less future Gear VRs that will be here by the time Daydream launches.
Valve and HTC have openness and cutting-edge quality on their sides; so far Google just has openness. Don't expect a Vive-like entry for Daydream.
Mobile VR isn't fully taking advantage of its wireless nature
PC-based VR is by far the best, and probably will be for quite some time. But mobile has one huge advantage in being wireless.
Mobile VR headset makers aren't doing much with that, though, by leaving out positional tracking and real gesture control. If you can only be tracked sitting in one spot, then there's little advantage in your headset having no cables. Wireless should mean freedom, being able to move around a space and having your movement tracked accordingly. Right now it's a wasted opportunity.
The technology is there. All mobile VR companies would need to do is add an external sensor and a couple of controllers. The problem is they're viewing mobile VR like other mobile devices, thinking portability needs to trump everything else.
We can't complicate our portable VR by making users plug in sensors and carry around extra controllers!!
We think that's skewed thinking. Even when there's a smartphone inside, VR isn't like a smartphone or tablet; you aren't likely to want to use it while sitting on a train or on your office lunch break. I'd be shocked if mobile VR wasn't used more at home than anywhere else – by a wide margin.
Instead of seeing mobile VR as the portable one, mobile VR headset makers need to start seeing it as the wireless one. Make it a more complete VR experience, including positional tracking and tracked controllers. It won't be as powerful as PC-based VR, but if it's wireless, we won't care.
Maybe we should stop confusing the issue by calling it "mobile VR." How about "wireless VR" or just "smartphone-based VR?" Just because there's a phone inside doesn't mean it needs to follow the same mobile strategy as smartphones and tablets. It will never make sense to be used in most places you use those devices.
Hey, Apple: The pressure is on
Android will soon have not just the Gear VR inside Samsung's kingdom, but also Daydream filling in the gaps on the HTC, LG, Nexus and Huawei phones of the world. Within six months or so, I'm guessing all new Android flagships worth mentioning will be capable of some fairly high-quality VR experiences.
Rumors and patents have pointed to Apple working on something VR-related, but it doesn't sound like that's going to happen this year. Leaks are pointing to 2017 as being the year when the iPhone switches to an OLED panel, which tells us that's likely when the iPhone will become a VR platform.
By that time Apple will be very, very late to this party. Apple already plays the role of follower much more than it used to (for starters, see iPad Pro/Surface), but this VR train has been building up steam for a few years now. A late 2017 launch for Apple would cement its status as not just a company that's more reactionary than innovative, but one with not particularly fast reflexes.
Being Apple, there will naturally be some amazing-sounding feature it pitches as making the wait worthwhile. And who knows, maybe it will live up to that billing. Of course the iPhone's dominant status in the smartphone industry will guarantee some degree of importance no matter what – sort of the way Apple Music quickly became a major player in streaming music, despite arriving years after Spotify and others.
But fleshing out your platform with badass VR content isn't the same as buying agreements with record labels. The more time that passes where iOS isn't a hotbed of VR development, the harder a time it's going to have catching up to the Gear VR's and Daydream's game libraries. The pressure is on, Apple.