At its I/O 2017 event, Google revealed that the next stage of the Daydream VR platform requires no smartphone at all; instead, using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 VR platform, Daydream VR will come to standalone HMDs.
Google Daydream platform
A year ago, Google stepped up its VR game in a big way. After nearly two years of playing with Cardboard, Google revealed the next phase of its VR ambitions: The Daydream VR platform. The company announced that it had developed a reference design specification for OEMs to build Daydream-ready smartphones and Daydream View HMDs to go with them.
This year at Google I/O 2017, Google revealed a partnership with Qualcomm that lead to the creation of a new reference design for Daydream HMD makers. The Daydream VR platform is no longer synonymous with smartphone-based VR, although Google is keeping Daydream a mobile platform. Google and Qualcomm collaborated to create a standalone Daydream HMD reference design, with all the goodies built into the headset itself.
Google said the standalone Daydream HMD should offer a better experience compared to smartphone-derived VR hardware. Because the device is made specifically for VR, Google is able to optimize every bit of the hardware for VR experiences. Everything from the screen, the optics, the ergonomics, and the performance characteristics are tailored for the best possible VR experience.
Powered By Snapdragon 835 VR
Google worked with Qualcomm to integrate the semiconductor company’s Snapdragon VR platform into the standalone Daydream headset. Qualcomm designed (with Samsung’s help) its Snapdragon 835 SoC for the express purpose of enabling “immersive experiences” on mobile devices. Qualcomm traditionally caters to the smartphone market, but with the Snapdragon 835, the company positioned itself as a solution for standalone VR and AR devices.
Google isn’t the first Qualcomm customer to make use of the Snapdragon 835 VR Platform. Osterhout Design Group (ODG) was the first company to reveal a product based on the Snapdragon 835 VR SoC. In fact, Qualcomm’s reveal of the Snapdragon 835 came alongside the announcement of ODG’s R8 and R9 Smartglasses, which should hit the market later this year. But the new Daydream reference design is a standalone VR headset, not AR specs.
“We are thrilled to once again work with Google and offer a powerful premium Snapdragon experience for devices on the Daydream platform,” said Keith Kressin, senior vice president, product management, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. “Our companies share the same vision: to make it possible for everyone to enjoy rich and immersive VR experiences on a smartphone device or a dedicated VR head-mounted display while being fully mobile, rather than being restricted by cables or limited to predefined rooms setup for outside-in tracking.”
Google’s Daydream Team Is Doing The Tango
Google’s Daydream platform offers reasonably sophisticated VR experiences with gyroscopic orientation tracking and a three-axis motion controller, but Daydream View doesn’t offer a spatial tracking or spacial awareness system of any kind. The lack of spatial tracking is one of the biggest differences between mobile VR and PC-connected VR systems. But Google has a plan to solve the spatial tracking issue for its standalone Daydream design.
You may have heard of Google’s Tango AR platform. Google decided it was a good idea to combine the Tango technology with the standalone Daydream HMD. Who would have guessed?
The Tango platform has three main pillars: motion tracking, area learning, and depth perception. Those features are necessary for believable AR, but if you think about it for a second, all those things are necessary if you want to create an inside-out tracking and safety system, too. When you have an HMD on your head, you need a way to get information from the real world so that you don’t walk into objects. Oculus and HTC solve that problem with outside tracking solutions and predefined play spaces when using a tethered HMD. Predefining your play space somewhat defeats the purpose of having a standalone mobile HMD, though; you should be able to put the HMD on and start using it right away, no matter where you are.
With Tango, Google used technology that it already developed to create a Daydream tracking system. The company repurposed the tracking cameras and sensors that it designed for Tango and integrated them into the Daydream platform. Google calls its VR tracking system "WorldSense."
“The Daydream standalone headset reference design created in close partnership with Qualcomm will enable manufacturers to build a whole new category of VR devices,” said Clay Bavor, vice president, virtual reality, Google. “These headsets have everything needed for VR, built right into the headset itself and are as easy to use as picking them up. They'll feature WorldSense for positional tracking right out of the box without any external equipment. We're thrilled that headsets will begin to hit shelves later this year.”
It's worth noting, though, that without any sort of see-through lenses or camera passthrough, "world scale" inside-out tracking is only of so much benefit. (This is the primary limitation of the Acer mixed reality headset, too.) However, we've already seen that there are some helpful possibilities to that end. For example, Leap Motion, which is part of Qualcomm's VR HMD accelerator program, offers hand tracking; it shows you a facsimile of your hands inside the VR HMD, so in that way, you can kind of "see" through it.
Further, there's no reason why the Tango paradigm we saw on the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro couldn't work on a Tango-supported VR HMD like this Qualcomm Daydream design. Tango offers camera passthrough to your smartphone's display; why not do the same with the HMD's display? In that way, this Daydream headset could be either a VR or an AR headset--a true mixed reality device. Google didn't mention a passthrough camera, but it didn't get into the specifications of the reference design, either. Beyond the Qualcomm SoC, we don't know what features are included with the new reference design.
Google didn’t say when the first standalone Daydream headset would hit the market, but it said we could expect to see the first round of devices later this year. Google partnered with HTC to build the first standalone Daydream HMD, and Lenovo is building the second standalone Daydream HMD.
Update May 23, 2017, 10:08am PT: Corrected a typo in the Osterhout Design Group name.