Google is taking the fight to the virtual reality giants, unveiling a new standalone Daydream VR headset which doesn’t rely on a smartphone or an attached PC.
Revealed overnight at the Google I/O developer conference in Mountain View, California, the new VR headset will include a built-in screen rather than relying on a smartphone like Google Cardboard, Daydream View and rivals such as Samsung’s Gear VR.
To offer a more immersive VR experience, the new standalone Daydream headset will also take advantage of the Google Tango augmented reality platform, using built-in dual wide-angle cameras to scan the surrounding environment. Dubbed “World Sense”, it allow wearers to walk around in virtual worlds without fear of walking into real-world walls, without the need to place external tracking cameras around the room as required with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.
Game-makers will be able to port titles from these other VR headsets to run on standalone Daydream headsets, using development platforms like Unity and Unreal, although some graphics and other features will need to be scaled back to allow for the fact that standalone Daydream headsets will run on smartphone-style hardware rather than a PC.
“The idea is that you have everything you need for VR built right into the headset itself, there’s no cables, no phone and certainly no big PC. The whole device is designed just for VR,” says the head of Google’s VR division, Clay Bavor.
“World Sense enables what’s known as positional tracking and with it your view in the virtual world exactly matches your movement in the real world. It works by using a handful of sensors on the device that look out into your surroundings, and that means it works everywhere, there’s no set-up and no cameras to install.”
One trade-off with the standalone Daydream headsets is that, while they will support the Daydream handheld controller, the controller will not be visible in the virtual world for interacting with virtual objects as it is with rival systems. This limitation will restrict the types of VR experiences which can be ported from those platforms to the standalone Daydream headsets.
Google won’t build its own headsets, instead it will provide a Qualcomm-based reference design to hardware makers. HTC and Lenovo are the first partners onboard, with headsets expected to be available by the end of the year.
Google will continue to support Google Cardboard and Daydream View, with the entire VR platform falling under the “Daydream” name. Samsung is coming onboard as a Daydream View developer, building support into the Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones, while LG is also adding it to its next flagship phone.
Meanwhile Google is also expanding its augmented reality efforts, with the Asus ZenFone AR set to become the second Tango-compatible device with dual cameras, offering a stereoscopic view of the world with an accurate sense of depth. Google is developing a Tango-powered indoor navigation system dubbed “Visual Positioning System”, which will allow users to find their way around retail stores and locate specific items on the shelf.
Visual Positioning System is built into the new Google Lens app, also announced during the Google I/O keynote, which uses machine learning to analyse the view from the camera in real time. Google Lens can identify objects and call up more information from the web, plus it is tightly integrated with Google Assistant, allowing users for example to point their phone’s camera at a concert poster, purchase tickets online and mark the event in their calendar.
Adam Turner travelled to the Google I/O conference in California as a guest of Google.