Three years ago, Google debuted Cardboard, a clever sub-$20 DIY kit that turned nearly any phone into a VR viewer. It was brilliantly simple -- so cheap and universal that The New York Times eventually gave it away for free to its print subscribers. And it worked as a smart counterpoint to the high-end PC-based VR hardware from Oculus, which had been acquired by Facebook just two months earlier.
What a difference three years makes. From those humble beginnings, Google is now pursuing a multifront war on the augmented and virtual reality front: its Daydream View VR headsets, introduced in 2016, turn phones into head-mounted VR viewers; a separate class of "Tango" phones incorporate advanced augmented reality cameras for overlaying digital objects onto the real world; and -- as of last week's Google I/O developers conference -- a new standalone version of Daydream (no phone required!) is coming soon.
Oh, and Cardboard? Yep, that's still alive and well, too.
How is Google planning to dominate the brave new world of AR and VR? Not with one singular product, but with a barrage of different approaches on a similar theme.
Daydream View: Improved, and now with more phones
Daydream View is the Google headset that turns compatible phones into face-mounted VR viewers. Google's answer to Samsung's Gear VR has about 150 compatible apps. It launched last year alongside Google's Pixel and Pixel XL phones, and it's also compatible with the Moto Z and Z Force, Huawei Mate 9 Pro and ZTE Axon 7.
Google is improving Daydream's software in a 2.0 update (codenamed Euphrates) that will add features like sharing VR footage with friends, connecting with others in apps like YouTube, and checking in on Android notifications without having to take the phone out of the headset. And the company is adding a bunch of phones to Daydream's compatibility list:
- * Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus: Samsung's flagship phones already work Samsung's own Gear VR and hundreds of VR apps. But these same phones will work with Google's Daydream View VR headset, too, with a software update this summer. That makes these the only cross-platform VR-ready phones available. But, you won't be able to use the same headset or apps on both platforms: instead, you'll need to keep two headsets and use two separate accounts. That could test the patience of any VR newcomers.
- * LG's next phone: This is presumed to be the V20 successor (V30?).
- * Motorola's next phones: The Z and Z Force already work with the Daydream View VR headset, but others are on their way this year.
- * Asus ZenFone AR: The ZenFone AR is a rare phone that handles both Google's Daydream View VR and Google's advanced Tango augmented reality camera in one phone. In fact, it's the only phone. However, these two technologies don't smoothly intersect. More on that below.
Tango augmented-reality phones: A different proposition
On another end of the spectrum is Tango, Google's advanced camera technology that allows for impressive augmented-reality effects on a phone. (Or, you might want to call it mixed reality -- but that's a different story altogether.) Tango can also 3D-scan entire rooms, function as an indoor mapping tool, and help measure spaces and places virtual items into them, like furniture, in ways that seem nearly real.
As mentioned above, the ZenFone AR goes both ways: It can be used with the Daydream VR headset, and it also can use advanced AR apps. But Google's Tango and Daydream-compatible app libraries are very different from each other at the moment, and only one app so far -- a 3D-scanning app called Tango Constructor -- can work in both Tango and VR modes. Daydream VR requires popping the phone into a headset, while Tango works without a headset on.
In fact, only Tango phones will work with Google's cool AR Expeditions app, which lets students explore virtual attractions like solar systems and statues from selfie-sick length.
HTC and Lenovo are making standalone headsets. / James Martin/CNET
Coming soon: Standalone VR headsets, no phone needed
To date, consumer VR products have all been high-end models tethered to PCs and game consoles (HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 10 headsets) or "phone on your face" accessories (Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR). But Google will soon be spinning off its Daydream platform with phone-free headsets.
HTC and Lenovo are making the first standalone Daydream models, powered by Qualcomm silicon. These headsets will be totally self-contained, not require a phone, and will run Daydream VR apps. They will also have built-in "WorldSense" cameras that allow some room-tracking and movement. That's similar to Microsoft's upcoming low-cost VR headsets for Windows PCs -- but unlike those, the Google ones won't require you to be physically cabled to a computer.
How much will these headsets cost? How long will the batteries last? Will they be fun and easy to use? We have no idea yet, but Google's intending on these to be more advanced alternatives to the plug-in-your-phone Daydream View VR headset solution sold since last year. These sound promising, but buying into a separate headset will inevitably cost more than a simple Daydream accessory for the phone you already have. Will the proposition be worth the price?
Asus Zenfone AR: the only fully AR-VR ready Google phone, but it won't be the last. / CNET
VR and AR: The next standard feature, but not now
Daydream for phones. Tango. Standalone Daydream. Oh, and there's also YouTube 360 -- the 360-degree video that's a sorta-kinda VR experience that works in any browser.
That's a lot of options. Maybe too many. But it brings me back to good ol' Cardboard.
Guess what? Cardboard still works. It's ugly, it's basic, and you can even use it on an iPhone. But it's still the best way to share VR with kids and people who don't want to spring for specialized hardware. And it worked with any phone.
Cardboard feels like an afterthought. But to me, it's a reminder of how quickly Google's advanced and diversified its VR approach. Daydream View and Tango aren't VR and AR for everyone: they're VR and AR for those who have the right gear.
But that's just for now. It's a safe bet that Daydream and Tango compatibility could well be table stakes for high-end (and maybe even midrange) Android phones in a year or two. Fast-forward several years, and most mainstream phones will probably be VR and AR-ready.
Or, standalone headsets for VR could be affordable and ubiquitous enough that it won't matter.
Google seems like it's trying to win now by approaching all fronts at once. For the person who's buying a phone right now, that's going to mean some tough choices. But for Google, it might just be a win/win, positioning itself in all territories just as the AR/VR arms race with Microsoft, Facebook and Apple heats up.
I'm just a little bit concerned that three different trajectories on three different categories of products is a lot more challenging to get people to try than plain old Cardboard.