There is lots of hype and excitement around virtual reality technology, but it’s still too early to get hard stats on the actual demand for the current crop of VR headsets.
Google has provided some figures, though. In January, it said that more than five million Google Cardboard VR headsets had shipped, while in May it announced that more than 50m Cardboard-compatible apps had been installed.
Cardboard was an interesting initiative: a parallel strand of VR from the expensive headsets represented by Oculus Rift. It used people’s smartphones as the processor and screen for a sub-$20 cardboard headset, with open specs ensuring dozens of companies could make their own variants.
From games and documentary films to 360-degree videos on YouTube, Cardboard has sparked some creative ideas. Now Google is launching its follow-up: a platform called Daydream, which includes a Google-branded headset called Daydream View, which was unveiled yesterday.
Daydream was actually announced in May at the company’s I/O developer conference: a more powerful headset – still with a reference spec so external companies can make their own – and dedicated software built in to new Android smartphones, capable of running richer VR apps.
Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei and Xiaomi are among the manufacturers making Daydream-capable phones, while the first headset broke cover yesterday at Google’s press launch for its new Pixel smartphones and Home smart speaker.
Daydream View will cost $79, undercutting its closest existing rival, Samsung’s Gear VR, when it goes on sale in November. Users will need to supply their own smartphone, although we suspect that a number of retailers and mobile operators will choose to bundle a Daydream headset in when people get a new handset. For now, Daydream View will be available in five countries: the US, Canada, UK, Germany and Australia.
Like the Gear VR, Daydream View uses the smartphone as both its screen and its computer to run VR apps and games. It differs from Cardboard in one obvious respect: the new device is made from fabric rather than cardboard, which Google hopes will make it comfortable to wear.
The Daydream View comes with a controller, shaped like a mini remote-control, which will be used to track the wearer’s hand gestures to control apps.
“It points where you point, and is packed with sensors to understand your movements and gestures. You can swing it like a bat or wave it like a wand. And it’s so precise that you can draw with it,” is how Google describes it. “The controller slides right inside the headset when not in use, so you don’t have to worry about losing it in your bag or between couch cushions.”
Google has been working hard already to sign up content partners for Daydream more generally, including the Daydream View headset. 50 apps are already confirmed from various partners, as well as Google’s own services.
That includes a YouTube Daydream app to “watch the entire library of videos on a virtual big screen” as well as dedicated 360-degree and VR videos on the service; and VR versions of Google Street View, Google Play Movies and Google Photos.
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Warner Bros’ VR take on J.K. Rowling’s ‘Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them’ will also be present and correct on Daydream, along with apps from the MLB, NBA, Hulu, HBO and Netflix, and a catalogue of games.
What about music? It wasn’t mentioned much during the launch beyond the YouTube connection, but there are a growing number of VR/music startups who we expect to see exploring the Daydream platform alongside Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and other VR platforms.
Earlier this year we profiled two of them, UK-based MelodyVR and US-based TheWaveVR, who are taking different approaches to the technology. MelodyVR is filming gigs so that fans can watch from multiple vantage points, and look around within the venue. TheWaveVR still involves live performance, but with more of an element of visualisation woven in.
Both companies are planning to launch on various VR platforms, but if Daydream headsets (including the View) take off, Google’s platform could offer them their biggest route to people’s eyeballs – and ultimately to their wallets, if there’s demand.
Sales will be the key. Daydream-capable Android smartphones will sell in their hundreds of millions over the next couple of years: that’s guaranteed. The question is how many of those purchasers will also pick up a Daydream headset – a function of how many bundle deals there are, as well as the appeal of the devices and their $79-ish (some will be more expensive, some may be cheaper) price.
One more thought about why Daydream is an interesting platform. If it does take off, it will inevitably focus more attention on whether Google’s great rival, Apple, will follow suit with its own VR platform and/or devices.
CEO Tim Cook recently said that he thinks augmented reality (AR) will be more mainstream than VR, but some of Apple’s patents and recent hires suggest that exploring the latter technology would not be a stretch for the company.