Google dipped a tentative toe in virtual reality hardware with Cardboard, its low-cost viewer for smartphones, but never really shipped the software to match. Setting up videos and apps made for Cardboard as a result can be cumbersome, in most cases requiring that you launch the experiences out of the viewer, on your phone’s touchscreen, before strapping Cardboard to your face.
But if some unfinished code in Android is any indication, virtual reality on mobile is about to become a lot more immersive: the recently updated Android N Developer Preview contains references to a “VR mode,” plus new developer hooks for managing 360-degree interfaces.
The references to virtual reality in the Android Developer Preview were spotted by Ars Technica, and point to a system for games and apps that tap into VR. A new service, “VR Listener,” appears to provide a way for developers to register their VR apps with Android. Users will be notified when they do so, and will have the choice of either permitting or denying requests on a per-app basis. Apps that successfully register will “be able to run when you are using applications in virtual reality mode,” according to code in a new settings screen within Android’s Special Access menu (Settings > Apps > Configure Apps > Special Access).
If you find that last bit about “virtual reality mode” a tad perplexing, you’re not the only one — it appears to be the first official mention of any sort of virtual reality mode for Android. And beyond that solitary reference, the code gives no clue as to what “virtual reality mode” might comprise.
Though it may not be clear what form Android’s “virtual reality mode” might take, an interface a la Samsung’s Gear VR homescreen or Valve’s SteamVR isn’t out of the question. Android lacks any sort of native launcher for VR apps, after all, and rumors persist that the company is developing new hardware to leverage the burgeoning field of virtual reality. According to the Wall Street Journal, The Information, and the Financial Times, Google plans to release a more advanced version of Cardboard — one with “chips and sensors” — later this year, and separately is developing a standalone headset that packs motion-sensing positional cameras and doesn’t rely on a smartphone.
A virtual reality mode might also help unify the Android experience across headsets, too. Smartphone viewers are cheap and ubiquitous, true, but they have a major drawback: the lack of a cohesive interface. The addition of a headset-agnostic virtual reality mode — a mode that’d look and behave the same no matter which viewer you chose to use — would be a boon for usability.