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WTF is Daydream? Google's big Android VR push, explained

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Google Daydream

We made Google's first bit of virtual reality hardware out of an old pizza box, so you'll be forgiven for having low expectations for the company's next attempt.

Still, Cardboard deserves huge praise for helping to make VR mainstream and allowing anyone with a decent smartphone to test out virtual reality. But it's a rough, lo-fi experience, and now with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at the top end of the market, we hoped Google would aim a little higher. Luckily, they now have.

Announced at I/O 2016 last week, Daydream is a brand new, Android-powered mobile VR platform that will let you stick your phone in premium viewer and use the included motion controller to play more immersive experiences. It'll only work with upcoming Daydream-certified phones and headsets, but at least that ensures quality hardware, moving away from the middling, one-size-fits-most approach of Cardboard.  

Could you be a Daydream believer in the making? Here's what you need to know.

Cardboard no more: Android N brings next-level mobile VR
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What is Daydream?

Google Daydream

Daydream is Google's attempt to deliver a premium, phone-based VR experience. Many top phone manufacturers will work with Google to develop Daydream-ready phones, which means they have the right combination of specs – screen quality, processor speed, and motion sensors, among other aspects – to drive a consistent VR experience once slotted into the headset.

And unlike Cardboard and Samsung's Gear VR, Daydream headsets will come with their own motion controller: a small, one-handed remote with a circular touchpad that's similar to the Apple TV's Siri Remote and will allow for various in-game interactions. In every way, it's a step well above what Cardboard offers, although we suspect it won't be far from the Gear VR in terms of graphics quality and immersion.

Who's making the hardware?

Google Daydream

Lots of companies, actually: Samsung is one of them, surprisingly, even though it will continue to support the Gear VR. Other companies already committed include LG, HTC, Huawei, Asus, Alcatel, ZTE, and Mi. Each will build a phone to Google's specifications and then likely release their own headset and controller combo, as well.

And Google will build its own headset and remote, as well: the model shown in the illustration up top is not only a reference spec for partners, but it will also be released. If you're worried about Daydream compatibility woes, worry not: supposedly, each phone will work in an array of different Daydream headsets. That way, you're not stuck buying HTC's headset for HTC's phone, and so on.

How powerful will it be?

Samsung Gear VR

Well, it's not going to blow the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive out of the water. Those headsets require a high-end PC and use premium, built-in components to deliver incredible VR experiences. Even with a flagship phone, you'll probably spend half as much money on a full Daydream setup than you'd need to on either of those headsets along with a capable PC.

More than likely, we'll see performance along the lines of what's possible on the Gear VR (shown). Add in another year of flagship hardware evolution and the first Daydream experiences might be a little smoother and more immersive than what's possible on the Gear VR right now. Then again, whenever the Galaxy S8 comes out, the Gear VR should be right back at the same level.

We liked the Gear VR a fair bit when the consumer model released last year, and it has a nice array of worthwhile games and apps available. It's not anywhere near as immersive as the Rift or Vive, but it's a massive leap ahead of Cardboard. And treated as an affordable add-on to your smartphone, it's well worth the cash for the headset. Daydream should be much the same way.

And it's powered by Android?

Google Daydream

Indeed: Android N, specifically. A special VR mode is being built into Android N that allows for notifications to come through properly in your 360-degree experience, plus optimisations are included in the upcoming operating system to reduce latency and improve screen response times.

And thanks to Android N's support of the Vulkan graphics API, we'll get even better game visuals without taxing the phone too hard. In other words, the games will hopefully run very well without making the phones super-hot to the touch or fogging up your lenses.

Android N will be out later this summer, but the first Daydream phones and headsets probably won't see the light of day until autumn. That's good, though: developers have plenty of time to wrap their heads around Android N, especially with the public beta available now, so they can convert their top games into VR and port over experiences from other platforms.

What can I play on it?

We haven't seen a lot of software shown or revealed just yet, but the VR industry itself is still pretty young. Based on the images and trailers released so far, we've seen Google's own Playground app, which includes various VR-primed mini-games, as well as a VR version of Need for Speed: No Limits and EVE Gunjack Next, the sequel to the fun Gear VR space shooter.

Video apps like YouTube, HBO Now, Google Play Movies, and are coming, and we'll likely see Netflix, Hulu, and many other content providers onboard. You'll also be able to access the Play Store right from the headset, which means you don't need to leave your Daydream to pump it full of fresh content.

Building support right into Android N should make it much easier for app and game makers to add Daydream support and expand their typical touchscreen experiences into the virtual realm. As such, Daydream could have an explosion of content at launch and shortly after, plus it seems likely that a lot of existing Gear VR content will make its way over as well. Don't be surprised to see games like Minecraft, Land's End, and Hitman Go: VR Edition lead the pack.

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