If you leave technology out of it, what Google is attempting to achieve with its new Daydream virtual reality headset seems to violate the laws of physics. The new design will provide an experience comprable to what you'd expect from an HTC Vive or Rift, but without any the powerful PC and external sensors those headsets require.
But Silicon Valley believes technology is the answer to many unsolvable problems, and Google offered more details about the new Daydream design's technological breakthroughs at its I/O developers conference on Thursday. The silver bullet appears to be a combination of software and hardware innovations Google is calling "WorldSense."
"WorldSense eliminates one of the major differences between smartphone and desktop VR today," Google engineering director Johnny Lee said on stage at I/O.
Based on innovations already developed for the Tango platform, WorldSense starts with two wide-angle cameras mounted to the headset that constantly scan the physical room, detecting objects and tracking their positions over time. Its data, along with that of additional position trackers and a depth sensor embedded in the headset, are then sent to a mobile on-board processor with a delay of about 5 milliseconds.
The result is that the new Daydream headset will recognize your position in the real world and feed it to the video game or other virtual reality app you're using almost instantaneously. Smartphone-based headsets like the current Daydream View or the Samsung Gear VR can't do that, and the Vive and Rift both require a connection to a dedicated external PC with a high-end graphics card to accomplish it.
Since no one outside of Google and its engineering partners has actually experienced the new headset (they're coming later this year from HTC and Lenovo), the big unknown is whether or not moving all that processing to the headset will result in lower resolutions or other quality hits, like a short battery life. Google didn't offer many details to assuage those concerns, but it suggested that upcoming software improvements will boost efficiency.
Those improvements will culminate in version 2.0 of the Daydream platform, codenamed Euphrates, according to Director of Daydream Project Management Mike Jazayeri. Euphrates will be built into the upcoming Android O operating system, which has a new window manager and access to the system user interface accessible from a standalone VR headset—no smartphone required.
It will also let game developers recreate scenes originally written for desktop PCs, simplifying them so that they can be displayed in a VR headset with a fraction of the processing power required to display them on a computer. That innovation is called Seurat, after the French painter, and means scenes that used to take an hour or more to render can be rendered in just milliseconds using a mobile GPU.
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"Powerful hardware also requires powerful software," Jazayeri said on stage at I/O. But both of those things require people to actually use them to be successful, and VR's limited appeal—it's mostly the realm of hardcore video gamers—is the obstacle that Google and everyone else is trying to move beyond.
So Daydream 2.0 will feature several improvements designed to whet mainstream appetites, including the ability to cast what your headset is currently displaying to your TV via Google Chromecast and save screenshots to show all your non-VR friends what they're missing. And if you're not into gaming, you'll also soon be able to watch YouTube videos in virtual rooms with your Daydream headset-wearing friends.