Google Announces Standalone VR Headset

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Image Credit: Google. Used under Fair Use Doctrine
Just as the 2017 Google I/O conference kicked off, we posted that a rumour about a new standalone HMD from Google was doing the rounds, backed by credible sources who spoke to Variety.
It turns out that the rumours are true and Google duly announced a new HMD that will be sold under the “Daydream” brand, which is also the name of another Google product. The original Daydream is a soft-material, premium mobile HMD that (like the Samsung Gear VR) only works with a limited number of phones.
Daydream 1.0 (as we’ll refer to it in this article) was widely praised on a technical level, but not many compatible phones have come out to fuel a mass uptake of the device.
Why that is remains a mystery, but this new standalone Daydream (let’s call it Daydream 2.0) neatly sidesteps that dependency issue by providing an all-in-one solution. You buy one product and it works without the need to buy anything else.
What We Don’t Know
Let’s start with what we don’t know about the Daydream 2.0: Price and release date.
As far as anyone can tell this is a product that’s still in the prototype phase, which means whatever hardware you may see is not final. The mockup in this video looks pretty slick, but we have no idea how closely the final machine will mimic it.
There’s no telling how much the unit will cost, but there’s a good chance it’s going to rival the price of an Oculus or Vive, since it will also include the components of high-end smartphones and many custom optical and electronic parts.
However, even if the Daydream 2.0 ends up costing as much as an Oculus or Vive HMD, it will still be a cheaper experience overall, since it does not require the purchase of a separate computer or any other hardware.
On the other hand, many people already have smartphones capable of mobile VR, in which case the Daydream 2.0 could be perceived as a doubled cost. Presumably the Daydream will provide a qualitatively better experience than other mobile VR case HMDs. The question is whether this is a niche with a significant market.
What We Do Know
Google has furnished the public with quite a few details though. For one thing, we know that the Daydream 2.0 is “coming soon” which makes a release during the 2017-2018 likely. Google hasn’t really been in the habit of announcing products only to allow the hype to die down before release. Specifically, it’s not likely that it still won’t be out by the next Google I/O.
We also know that the system is completely independent using “no cables, phone or PC”. Given that it’s a mobile HMD we can also assume there are no external sensors either, but handheld motion controls will probably be a part of it, but we don’t know if they’ll be optional. Some of the mockup images do show a controller.
Let’s break some of the other facts down in more detail.
The Hardware Partners
Since Google isn’t a direct hardware maker, they make use of hardware partners to actually create products to stock on shelves. In this case they’ve turned to Lenovo and HTC. You’ll recognize HTC for their Vive VR HMD which they make in partnership with Valve Corporation.
The Vive is of course one of the most advanced tethered VR HMDs you can buy, so there’s no doubt that the company is supremely  qualified to make this. Lenovo, too is a proven name in hardware and they’re also making a Windows Holographics unit. Talk about hedging your bets, eh?
“Worldsense” Brings 6DoF to Mobile
Diagram on Six Degrees of Freedom is Public Domain
The biggest news from what we’ve seen so far has to be the fact that the Daydream 2.0 brings six degrees of freedom motion tracking to mobile VR. If you don’t know, there are six direction you can move along the XYZ axes.
So far devices with internal tracking devices are only good for tracking acceleration and rotation, but accurate positional tracking is something you need an external sensor for. If you own an Oculus there’s an external camera that tracks the headset’s position. The Vive has an elaborate room-scale system called Lighthouse that does the same thing, but bigger.
Somehow Google’s new headset has gotten around the need for an external sensor system. It’s a technology they’ve dubbed Worldsense and while we don’t know exactly how they’ve done it, if they say it works there’s no reason to doubt it. Most likely R&D projects such as Tango have played a significant role.
Design
There are two different designs for this new HMD, one for each of the hardware partners. The one we’ve seen in the promo videos looks to be most similar to the HTC mockup. The Lenovo model looks quite different.
While the HTC Daydream 2.0 clearly riffs on the Oculus and (to a lesser extent) the Vive, the Lenovo model has a design that looks closer to the Sony PSVR than anything else.
The pictures don’t seem to show integrated headphones. That may just be a quirk of the diagrams, but it could be that Google has chosen not to lock people into a sound system. We’ll have to wait and see.
Specifications
Neither of the companies have put up specific hardware specifications, so we don’t know the resolution of the screen or screens, what the field of view is or anything else of the kind.
The hardware platform itself, the CPU, GPU and other technical doodads are of prime interest because the Daydream 2.0 comes with unique opportunities.
When you’re putting together the components for a smartphone, you have to take the limited size, cooling and battery power of the device into account. Using a new form factor such as this alleviates those constraints.
Introducing 6DoF to mobile is a major contribution, but it may not be enough to lure people into what’s essentially a new platform. Without the operating system overhead of constant cellular communication and all the other things that a smartphone needs to do Daydream 2.0 devices might just do more than any current phone can using the same hardware. Lifting form factor restraints may allow for faster hardware too. A bigger GPU, higher clock speeds and who knows what else. This is not just going to be a phone stuffed in a case.
Bated Breath
It’s not often an entirely new product category is born, but we may be seeing just that here. While Daydream was “just” another mobile HMD case, albeit a fancy one, this is a specialist product that can’t help but be better than any cardboard-like kludge.
All that’s left now is to wait for the actual release, but of course if new details come to light you’ll read about it right here.
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