When word spread in 2016 that Google would move into serious virtual reality, not just disposable cardboard viewers, my colleague Dieter Bohn immediately put a couple of pieces together. One was the need for headsets that could track motion without dedicated “VR rooms” full of cameras or markers.
The other was Project Tango, a Google experiment that used an array of cameras to map physical space. Google only announced the more modest Daydream mobile headset that year, but a Tango-powered device seemed inevitable. At I/O 2017, it finally arrived, in the form of a standalone headset that’s supposed to ship later this year.
Google head of VR Clay Bavor describes the new headset as one point on a spectrum called “immersive computing,” an emerging technological paradigm that “enables our computers to work more like we do.”
His team’s been working on this project for two and a half years, and Google is partnering with Qualcomm, HTC, and Lenovo to release a reference design and two commercial products based on it. If this works, Google’s years-long experiments with augmented and virtual reality will have converged into the ideal self-contained VR headset.
But the standalone device feels more like a new beginning than a culmination — and it may be healthier for VR if we treat it that way.
The new VR headset uses Google’s Android-based Daydream platform and a system called “WorldSense,” which tracks motion through front-facing edge-detecting cameras. I tried a prototype of the design, and it feels like a solid foundation that could be fine-tuned into something great, if Google can keep to the rest of its promises.
The final headsets are supposed to cost about as much as high-end tethered products like the $599 Oculus Rift or $799 HTC Vive, but without the additional cost of a PC.