Abruptly, there is a forest in what was just moments ago your living room. You press a button on the device in your hand and a flashlight illuminates the darkness; there’s an owl peering at you from a tree where once there was a family portrait. An armadillo emerges from a nearby cave and offers some helpful instructions on how to use the thing in your hand. Turns out it’s not a flashlight at all, but some sort of controller. You play fetch with an arctic fox. A palm tree becomes a slingshot, so you use it to launch coconuts into the ocean. You hit a boat, and a dolphin comes out of the water and does some tricks.
It might sound like an H.R. Pufnstuf fantasy, but this is Daydream, Google’s new cheaper and easy-to-use virtual reality platform that it hopes will take on the likes of Oculus and Sony. In the coming weeks — if all goes well — the welcome scene in the forest will greet new users when they fire up a Daydream View headset for the first time; it’s a way to acclimate them to a radically new device from Google — and a way for Google to make the long dream of VR for everyone a reality.
And speaking of reality: “What’s the use case for reality?” asks Clay Bavor, the thin, bespectacled 34-year-old who runs Google’s virtual reality efforts.
The question is simultaneously profound and so completely ridiculous that it could have been lifted from HBO’s Silicon Valley. Yet it explains why everyone is banking on VR as the Next Big Thing. Bavor offers it as a way of explaining what people will use VR for. He means that the use case for virtual reality is the same as the use case for actual reality because it is our reality and then some. Anything you can do in the real world, you will eventually be able to do in the digital one.
“What’s the use case for reality?”
To listen to the future-whisperers at Google or Facebook or Microsoft describe it, we’ll someday use VR to hold conversation with faraway loved ones, to tour places we might otherwise never visit, or that no longer exist (so that’s what it looks like on top of Everest). We will use it to move when our bodies cannot, and to experience the warmth of human connection from the isolation of a remote viewing station. Anything you can do in reality, any information you might be able to convey, any experience you can have — all of it will someday be replicated in VR. Or at least that’s the Next Big Thing pitch.
And already, just about every big player in the tech industry is springing at VR and its close cousin, augmented reality (or AR) —Microsoft with Hololens, Samsung with Gear VR, Facebook with Oculus Rift (which is in turn largely powered by Samsung hardware), Sony with Playstation VR, HTC with Vive. Apple hasn’t announced anything, but it’s got a phone with a remarkable display, plus spatially aware devices on your wrist and soon in your ears as well. Taken together with the company's massive iTunes Store video distribution system, you can bet your headphone dongle that Apple is trying to figure out an elegant way to connect all of those things together without strapping an ugly black box to your face.
And now, it’s Google’s turn. The company has made a series of smaller bets around VR and AR. It invested in the augmented reality startup Magic Leap, tried its hand with Google Glass, shipped millions of cardboard headsets called, uh, Cardboard to let people experience 360 video and very simple VR.
But now Google is really going for it with an evolution of that Cardboard program, called Daydream. Daydream is an attempt to do with VR what worked so well for Android: Provide a development platform and a handful of compelling reference devices that will rally manufacturers to it. If Google can provide an Android-like on-ramp — one that lets manufacturers customize an array of devices at a variety of price points — it thinks it can introduce millions, hundreds of millions, maybe even billions of people to VR in much the same way it introduced them to smartphones.
“We wanted to make sure that there wasn't just a single take on a VR device,” says Bavor, “but rather we could enable hardware manufacturers, smartphone manufacturers across the Android ecosystem, and a variety of developers to get into it.”
But first up: Google’s own reference design, the Daydream View, announced on a dreary Tuesday morning in San Francisco. The View is instantly different from anything else out there. Whereas the headsets from most of Google’s competitors are expensive, rigid, and frankly hideous to look at, the Daydream View is soft, comfortable, and costs just $79 — although you’ll still need to buy a high-end Android smartphone to go with it.
For Google’s VR lead, Daydream has been a long time coming. “My dad had this book of photo-realistic paintings, paintings done in oil or acrylic, where they looked like photographs,” Bavor says. “My mind was blown that Chuck Close, using just paint, could create a portrait of someone that in every way looked like a photograph. So those kind of re-creating a reality of things that aren't real is this idea in my mind.” As he entered his teens, Bavor discovered stereograms and Quicktime VR. Soon, he began tinkering with 3D rendering programs on his computer. “I remember I took my dad's new Discman and I tried to perfectly create every single surface of it and get the metal rendered just right. I took his guitar and I modeled that. I'd show him the renderings and would be like, ‘What do you think of this photo of your guitar?’”
“We wanted to make sure that there wasn't just a single take on a VR device.”
And, as it was for a lot of other people, Oculus was a turning point. “I saw one of the first Oculus Rift developer kits,” says Bavor, who reports that it led him to a eureka moment. "Aha! Mobile phone displays in today's sensors and in today's computers; I can now see a line of sight to when this all works.”
That line of sight brought Cardboard into view. Google introduced Cardboard in 2014 at its annual I/O developers conference. It was an out-of-the-box way for developers to begin tinkering with simple VR applications.
Fold Cardboard up and, with the help of some rubber bands, a magnet, and maybe a little Velcro, you had a a simple but functional VR viewer. Cardboard is oft-derided in VR circles as a toy, or a mere 360-video viewer. And it is! But it is also incredibly widespread in a way no other VR (or VR-like) device is — and that’s precisely because it’s so cheap and easy to use. (So cheap that the New York Times last year gave away more than a million Cardboard viewers slipped into its papers.)
“If you look at Cardboard, the thing that people are interested in is the simplicity of it,” says Andrew Nartker, the lead project manager for Daydream. “You add on a dollar’s worth of materials, and have a whole new set of experiences.”
Daydream is an attempt to radically expand those experiences — because for Google, an experience is fundamentally just information. And information can be broken down into data.
“Google has always cared about information. We think of information like words or text or images. But experiences are information as well,” says Bavor. “Here's another form of information we think it's important to give the world access to, whether that's, ‘Hey, what's the Museum of Natural History like?’ or democratizing access to experiences which today are scarce or hard to get to. Because of the size of a basketball court, there will only ever be a couple of hundred courtside seats. VR has the potential to give everyone a courtside seat.”
Beardos with black boxes strapped to their faces, playing video games.
If Oculus Rift or HTC Vive strives to deliver the high-end, mind-blowing, perfectly rendered VR experience, Daydream showcases another, fundamentally different approach. Repeatedly during our conversation at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Bavor comes back to the same idea: “Daydream is this notion of making virtual reality accessible and approachable and bringing it to vastly more people.”
But who, exactly, are those “vastly more people”? According to the conventional wisdom floating around Silicon Valley, VR will represent a profound shift in computing. So “vastly more people” could be everyone, ideally including those who might not otherwise have the 'courtside' experience to which Bavor refers, due to physical or financial circumstances. To hear this vision of it, VR will deliver all of us to the mountaintop, no matter what our physical abilities. It will let wheelchair users stand, and will release cancer patients from their hospital beds — even if only in their minds.
But look around: In 2016 our working vision of VR is, well, ridiculous; mouth-gaping beardos with expensive black boxes strapped to their faces, playing video games. That doesn’t exactly seem like an experience worth democratizing.
“I think actually one of the reasons your impression of VR usage is towards games is there haven't actually to date been great tools for capturing and creating VR video content,” argues Bavor. “The tools for creating games’ interactive experiences have been around for a while, and it’s games developers who know how to use those tools, and so you see a bias there.”
So to attempt to make those democratic experiences Bavor mentioned a reality, Google has also been pushing its 360-degree Jump camera rig. “We have a whole technology program around Jump to make sure that this ability to capture, share, re-create real-world experiences is broadly available,” says Bavor. “I think we're still in the very, very early days of reality and experience-capture of VR content.” (Google has also rolled out an app for iOS and Android called Cardboard Camera to let people capture their own 360-degree images without any sort of special camera.)
Step two is to get phones to market that will work with Daydream. As of today, the only phones that will support Daydream are two high-end Pixel models from Google that start at $649 and go up in price from there. There are other devices on the way from different manufacturers, but these too will land at the high end of the market. The idea is that prices will eventually come down as the smartphone wars (to borrow a phrase from Chris Anderson) pay peace dividends.
“The Daydream specs at this point are pretty high-end,” says Bavor. “You need a good processor. You need a great display. Our goal, and my strong desire, is in time to see every phone be Daydream-ready, capable of VR,” he says. “I shiver to think of that — hundreds of millions of these phones over the next couple of decades, and I think that's super exciting.”
If the phones that support Daydream are pricey, the Daydream View headset itself is not. At $79, it seems like a reasonable accessory to a $700 handset. (And Google also hopes that it will inspire lots of other manufacturers from various fields to make their own headsets.) It is also the design antithesis of most other VR headsets on the market: It’s really soft and light and comfortable.
This, as it turns out, was one of the core concepts of View. “When you’re suggesting people wear something, you really have to think about fit and comfort,” says Daydream’s Nartker.
And if Daydream View hits it out of the park on anything, it’s comfort and ease of use. Instead of a plastic box with hard corners, it’s all foam and microfiber and rounded edges. It’s light and folds gently against your face. The face pad itself is interchangeable and washable. The backside strap is easy to adjust — much like a pair of ski goggles. It’s very light, even with a phone loaded in. The experience of putting it on your head is not unlike donning an eye mask for an overnight flight. It will come in three colors: slate (gray), snow (white), and crimson (Roll Tide!).
“The materials are inspired by the stuff that we wear,” he says, “Athletic clothes, super-soft T-shirts. They're soft. They're flexible. They breathe.”
Beyond being comfortable, Daydream View is also a pretty sharp piece of tech. Capacitive sensors in the headset make sure that the phone immediately comes alive in VR mode when you place it in the headset — you don’t have to launch an app separately, and there are no wires to connect. The same sensors ensure that the VR picture is properly aligned, so you don’t have to fiddle around to get a good view.
“The phone can actually infer its precise position within the headset and realign imagery on the displays so that everything lines up perfectly,” Bavor explains. “We've patented it. Inside the headset are these pieces that rest on the display, and then by looking at basically multiple touch points on the display from these capacitive pieces, we know exactly where the phone sits relative to what are called the optical axes.”
Easily stored inside the Daydream headset in a cavity between the lenses and the front flap is a little handheld controller. Just a trackpad and two small buttons, it’s intentionally limited. Developers will be able to make more complicated controllers with more functions if they’d like, but this one is meant to be simple and intuitive even when it’s hidden from the view of the person using it.
“The balance we wanted to strike with the controller was something that was, on the one hand, super simple — that anyone could pick up if they've ever turned on a TV and changed the channel — but which was also powerful, and let them engage very expressively in a VR environment or a game or anything else they're experiencing,” says Bavor. “The real magic of the control is hidden inside. We have multiple sensors and some powerful technology that lets us infer everything from casting a fishing rod to waving a magic wand. It connects with you as a person in a way that lets you express what you want to do just as you would in the real world.”
What is also interesting about the Daydream View is what it doesn’t have. Unlike the HTC Vive, the View doesn’t need any external cameras to capture where you are in the room. No cables tether it to a computer like Oculus Rift. This means that there are compromises too: While Daydream View does track the movements of your head, it won’t walk with you through a room. Take a step forward in the real world, and you remain where you previously stood in the virtual one. The idea is that it’s good-enough VR, meant for the mob, not the elites.
There are a lot of questions about Daydream. Most immediately: How well will it work? Just two weeks before the Oct. 4 launch event, Google was still scrambling to finalize its Daydream demo. The forest scene that prefaces this story? It's drawn largely from Bavor’s description of what the Daydream welcome experience will be when it's finally finished.
But perhaps more importantly: Is it the right strategy at all? Will what worked for Android work for Daydream? It seems worth considering when you compare the $79 Daydream View headset with the $3,000 Microsoft Hololens or even the $600 Oculus Rift (which also requires a nice Windows PC to go with it). The closest analogue is the $100 Samsung Gear VR, which, like the Daydream View, also requires a high-end handset. But that strategy is one that people seem to be been running away from rather than toward. What if, in the near future, VR is no more than a pricey specialty experience?
What if, in the near future, VR is no more than a pricey specialty experience?
“Our belief is great VR is doable today at a price and performance level that is for the first time broadly appealing,” says Bavor. “That's what we're so excited about with this device; it's achievable, it's affordable, it's approachable. It's simple enough that a lot of people are going to be able to use and enjoy it. That, as opposed to the very high-end — which is also interesting, but for a different set of applications and people — is where our focus is right now.”
This is the thing about Silicon Valley and about the tech industry in general: Nobody really knows what will, or won't, be a hit. Otherwise, there would only be iPhones and Uber. All bets would be safe, the world predictable, and everyone would have bought Apple stock sometime in the first half of 2001. But instead we get the Apple Watch after Google Glass, and Snapchat Spectacles after that, and the Next Big Thing is always one more iteration away. Yesterday it was wearables. Today it is VR and AR and machine learning and self-driving cars. And maybe the Next Big Thing won't be so big at all, maybe it's the next Next Big Thing, or the one after that. And how it all plays out is still the stuff of dreams and imagined futures. But on this dreary Tuesday in early October, Google's trying to wake us all up.