Google dreams big on VR

After toying with virtual reality with its Cardboard project, tech giant Google has finally launched a ‘proper’ virtual reality platform: Daydream.

Announced at the company’s annual IO event, Daydream is a phone-based VR platform, much like the Samsung Gear VR.

Unlike Gear, which only works with some Samsung phones, the Daydream platform will support numerous handsets, as it’s part of Android 7.0 – with most manufacturers promising support for the platform.

Google’s own headset, initially just for its new Pixel phones, is called Daydream View. It comes bundled with a controller, so motion-based control in VR is guaranteed.

[Working on Daydream] has been a bit of a whirlwind ride,” says nDreams CEO Patrick O’Luanaigh.

It’s a really good mobile platform, easily in-line with the Gear VR, with the added benefits of having hand controls which has really allowed us some extra gameplay opportunities. It’s been great designing concepts for Daydream because the controller gives you different ways of interfacing with the game, whether you are smashing or pointing or aiming or jabbing. It’s the kind of things you used to be able to do with a Wii Remote.

Just like any new hardware there’s a few challenges as you get towards launch, but this has gone very smoothly. Google has been great to work with.”

As O’Luanaigh points out, the Daydream’s controller helps set it apart from other mobile VR tech. Tracking hand movements much like the Wii Remote, this places Daydream between lo-fi mobile VR and the more premium kits like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PSVR.

The controller is great. It’s nice and responsive, it’s small, it’s a good weight,” explains indie developer Mike Bithell.

The pointer is really precise, which surprised me. It’s emulated through gyroscopic sensors, it’s a good aim. You could do it for a drawing app or something like that – it’s nice and precise. Actually, it leads to some really nice game interfaces. With Cardboard, it was all about gaze, or Gear with the [optional] controller. But this is super high fidelity, so you can do some really cool gameplay stuff with it. The other aspect is standardisation. We know that if you have a Daydream, you have this controller and we can build games around that assumption.”

(Pictured above, from left to right: Climax’s Josh Tarrant, indie developer Mike Bithell, nDreams’ Patrick O’Luanaigh and Resolution Games’Tommy Palm)

One aspect of the Daydream View’s design that sets it apart from many other virtual reality players is its construction. Google has opted for a material that is said to feel more like gym wear than technology.

In short, it doesn’t look like a piece of tech – it stands apart from the black plastic Rift or Vive, or the futuristic white and blue of PlayStation VR. It’s almost the kind of thing you can imagine being in the home of a – gasp – normal person.

Google has approached it from a casual viewpoint,” O’Luanaigh says.

It’s for your regular person as opposed to hardcore tech enthusiasts, therefore it does look comfy and approachable. You can see that in the controller and the design of the headset. That works really well.”

Bithell adds: [The headset] is super comfortable as well. I describe it as a plimsol for your face. It’s very comfortable to wear and it looks very friendly. It doesn’t look like a VCR, it doesn’t look like technology, it looks very human and more like clothing.”

Climax’s biz dev manager Josh Tarrant believes this is a sign that Google is going mass market.

If you saw Daydream sitting on a table at home, you initially wouldn’t know what it is,” he says. It feels more made for mass appeal. It’s not off-putting, it doesn’t feel like a bit of tech initially. It has that soft touch feel and it’s the most comfortable headset we have used in the studio to be honest.”

The machine is clearly aimed at the mass market. One factor that is important in VR making it into the mainstream is easily accessible and high-quality titles.

In the past, experiences on Google’s Play Store have not been of the highest quality, yet those making games for the platform insist that Google isn’t messing around when it comes to virtual reality.

Google already has a lot of information about how to become a Daydream developer,” Resolution Games CEO Tommy Palm explains.

It has been very good at supporting the development community in that sense. It does make sense to curate content a little bit more in VR than you would on mobile phones, because you are in that world. If you have a bad experience, you can become really nauseous. That can be pretty gruesome if the developers don’t know what they are doing. It makes sense to be a little bit more careful about what’s made available to consumer.”

O’Luanaigh adds: Google has had us jumping through hoops to make sure that the quality of what we have is top notch. It is really strongly focused on a high quality bar, and utmost customer satisfaction with every product that they are looking through. We had to do many rounds of QA, as well as multiple groups of QA that are looking for individual things. It is really raising the bar on what they are letting through with Daydream.”

Bithell also says that developers have been taking quality seriously on Daydream: I can’t speak for Google but all of the developers launching games are taking this stuff really seriously. You’re not going to see choppy frame rates or nausea-inducing tracking or anything like that out of the gate with things that we are doing. We’ve all done a really good job of that. Things like 60fps and super-smooth tracking are the baseline.

It’ll be interesting to see how tightly Google controls that going forwards. At this early stage, everybody is taking this seriously.”

2016 has been the year of VR with HTC, Oculus and PlayStation launching their fancy new tech. Yet, that hardware has a high barrier to entry. The cheapest of these, PlayStation VR, sets consumers back 349, and requires a comparatively cheap PS4 console. Meanwhile, Rift and Vive cost 549 and 816 respectively, and need a fairly powerful PC.

"I’m a big believer in mobile VR.
It’s where most people are going to try VR for the first time."

Tommy Palm, Resolution Games

By contrast, mobile virtual reality is cheap and requires a smartphone to use – something that a high percentage of people own. On paper, mobile VR has staggering potential.

It’s a very attractive proposal,” Resolution Games’ Palm admits. Already with current generation smartphones, you can make some really compelling experiences both in terms of games and other entertainment. I’m a big believer in mobile VR. It’s still very early days but it’s a space that’s going to develop very rapidly. It’s also great that it’s portable and easy to carry around and show to friends, take it to school or – if you’re a developer – demo it at a conference. It’s a big difference compared to dragging around a stationary computer and all the things that go with it. It’s where most people are going to try VR for the first time.”

Bithell adds: Mobile VR is a great entrance

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