Among a number of massive Android and Google related announcements at the Google I/O Keynote, one raised more questions than it answered – Daydream. Google’s high-end VR initiative is a huge step towards faster performance and better displays in smartphones, but it wasn’t really clear exactly what that would look like, or who would be producing it.
At the beginning of day 2, virtual reality team leader Clay Bavor took the stage to describe some of Daydream’s underlying structure, as well as a timeline for its release and proliferation. There are unique challenges, like trying to get a battery powered system to run at similar performance standards as a system that plugs into a wall, and managing disparate hardware manufacturers, but it appears the team at Google has thought some of these through already.
So what does a Daydream setup look like, exactly? It’s made up of three distinct pieces that are all designed to work together towards a fulfilling, immersive VR experience.
It all starts with the phone. While Bavor didn’t share any specific performance or display markers that we can point to, there were some concrete requirements for Daydream ready smartphones.
The first is a low persistence display, like the OLED panels found in the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, or the AMOLED screens in the Samsung GearVR compatible phones. LCD screens don’t refresh fast enough, so when you spin your head the old image resides for a few milliseconds, enough to cause disassociation and dizziness.
Each phone will also be powered by powerful SoC to keep up with the key 20 millisecond motion to photon time. Again, there were no specific speeds or chip details, but it’s likely this will be a new chip designed specifically for Daydream phones, with powerful GPU capabilities to support high-end VR games.
Finally, Daydream ready phones will rely on a complex set of sensors for tracking head and controller movement. These aren’t just any old gyroscopes, however. In order to reach key latency benchmarks, Google has selected a bevy of low latency, high quality sensors for perfect tracking.
As it turns out, there’s already a Daydream ready phone on the market. Google’s very own Nexus 6P meets most of Daydream ready requirements, and you can use it to build yourself a Daydream developer kit now, assuming you have an extra older Android phone sitting around to simulate a controller. The caveat is that the Nexus 6P’s thermals aren’t designed for high-end VR’s demands, so the system may throttle performance as the system temperature rises.
Software is the second piece of the Daydream equation. Android N enables many of the features needed for a high-end mobile VR experience. Not every Android N device will be Daydream ready, but those that are will use some special software fixes to achieve results that are closer to those found on a PC, or the Samsung GearVR.
In particular, Google has opened up greater access to low latency operations on Daydream phones. Apps in Android are typically rendered in a double buffer, where the SoC draws a frame for the GPU, with the next frame loaded in the back buffer. At higher refresh rates, this can cause tearing, stuttering, and input lag – all detrimental to the VR experience. In VR mode, developers can switch to a single buffer. It’s more demanding on the system, but the result is smooth, responsive gameplay with no artifacts.
Google has also rolled in its version of what Oculus calls “Asynchronous Time Warp,” a method of improving tracking precision at the software level. In Daydream, it’s called electronic display stabilization, and it leverages the fact that the headset is constantly sending tracking information to the system. The phone renders the scene from your headset’s location, and then sends that image over to the screen. Before the final render, electronic display stabilization steps in, and adjusts for any movement between the render time and the display time.
The final piece of the puzzle, the headset, is where things start to get a little murkier. Like the phones, which will roll out from a number of manufacturers, the headset is simply a reference design that other companies can adopt or adapt. Bavor stressed the importance of a headset that’s comfortable for long-term wear, which mostly means carefully tuned balance and lightweight construction.
In our own testing, we’ve found that motion controllers make a huge difference when it comes to immersion and dizziness. Google has unleashed a reference design for its Daydream controller that’s built with a bevy of features purpose-built for VR. The small device boasts three degrees of freedom, with a small clickable touchpad and a pair of buttons. The trackpad and one button are available for developer control, while the second button returns the user to the Daydream home screen.
The motion tracking is impressive too, if the demo videos are any indication. The nice thing about a motion controller is its versatility, and the demos showed users flipping pancakes, guiding dragons, and waving wands. As Bavor put it, “it’s precise enough to use as a laser point, and responsive enough to use like a tennis racket.”
Google wants to ensure that when Daydream officially rolls out, it already has a comprehensive suite of software offerings. During the in-depth presentation on Daydream, the team showed off the Google Play Store and YouTube for Daydream apps, taking care to point out the redesigned UI, motion controller support, and 360-degree videos.
Daydream Home even has its own set of interesting features that set it apart from most other app stores. Among them is the discovery window, a splash screen that allows users to check out new apps and experiences, and even jump straight to a new level or gamemode, rather than just opening an app.
There’s even a version of the Daydream store accessible through the traditional phone interface, to queue up experiences or videos away from the headset. Either way, there are new details for apps in the Daydream store applicable specifically to VR apps. One in particular showed “moderate motion” as a qualifier, which is a bit more telling than Oculus’ “comfort” rating system.
Google isn’t alone on this bandwagon
Google isn’t the only company working to bring Daydream into the spotlight. It’s very much a group effort, with support for both Unity and Unreal Engine rolling out today. It’s just a plugin in Unity for now, but full native support is inbound this summer. C++ programmers also have access to the Daydream NDK, with full access to Google’s software tools.
On the video front, Google announced the Jump 360-degree video and photo program will be expanding to include new manufacturers. Among them are Yi Technology and IMAX, but there wasn’t any information on when those cameras would actually land on shelves.
The team at Google is working to provide developers with a comprehensive suite of tools for Daydream development, as well. The first is Daydream Labs, which will share the results of internal testing and experiments with the development community. The Daydream team has been working on everything from experiences to underlying performance, and everything they’ve learned will be a part of the general knowledge base when designing for VR.
There’s also a test application built specifically for learning about and testing the new motion controller. This is a completely new realm for developers, especially mobile app developers, so there are a series of little experiments and tutorials to help ease the transition.
Daydream will soon be reality
For now, the Nexus 6P is the only phone compatible with the new platform. Everyone else will have to wait until Daydream ready smartphones start rolling out later this year (developer leaks suggest November). Google will release its own version of the headset and controller, while Samsung, HTC, Huawei, LG, ZTE, Asus, Alcatel, and Xiaomi have all pledged to release Daydream ready phones. We would expect most flagships will be Daydream ready within a year or two, allowing Google to leverage its massive Android market share into a VR empire.