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Google’s Daydream View. We had fun times.
December 2014, I pulled CNET’s TV editor, David Katzmaier, into a conference room to show him a black plastic pair of goggles fitted over a Samsung phone. I seated him in a comfy swivel chair. I wanted to see what he thought of what I was about to show him, from a display perspective.
A few 3D 360-degree videos and virtual aquariums later, he was impressed as I was. I don’t think anything wowed me more than those early Samsung Gear VR experiences. They were powered by a phone, they could be taken anywhere and they just worked.
Nearly five years later, no one’s putting phones into VR goggles anymore. Google’s killing off Daydream, its own mobile phone-connected VR platform. John Carmack, CTO of Facebook’s Oculus, which partnered with Samsung on Gear VR, recently delivered a eulogy for the now-vanished VR goggles. Samsung doesn’t show off a Gear VR at its phone events anymore, or even breathe a word of it. The Daydream View VR hardware has vanished from Google’s web store and the brand-new Pixel 4 doesn’t even work with Daydream.
So, what happened?
VR is still here. There have been a ton of new VR headsets in 2019: There’s the Oculus Quest, the Valve Index and the HTC Vive Cosmos. There are headsets that plug into PCs, and there are standalone headsets. Understanding why the Daydream and Gear VR have gone away means asking why Google, Facebook and Samsung have moved on from phone VR as a strategy.
The Pixel 4 doesn’t work with Daydream anymore.
Google’s deep R&D
Google’s head of Daydream VR and AR, Clay Bavor, told me back in May that the company has been rethinking some of its bigger ideas in VR, with maybe something else new on the horizon. Google had a standalone version of the Daydream last year (which is no longer available), Livechat Dewasamurai but nothing new to emerge alongside Facebook’s Oculus Quest.
Google’s response on the disappearance of the Daydream was, “We saw a lot of potential in smartphone VR—being able to use the smartphone you carry with you everywhere to power an immersive on-the-go experience. But over time we noticed some clear limitations constraining smartphone VR from being a viable long-term solution. Most notably, asking people to put their phone in a headset and lose access to the apps they use throughout the day causes immense friction. There also hasn’t been the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped, and we’ve seen decreasing usage over time of the Daydream View headset. While we are no longer selling Daydream View or supporting Daydream on Pixel 4, the Daydream app and store will remain available for existing users.”
Google’s focus has largely shifted to practical phone AR tools for now, like Google Maps navigation and updates to Google Lens.
Daydream (left) and Gear VR (right). It seems like yesterday.
Oculus: Making its own headsets now
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg made it clear to me at the company’s recent Oculus VR developer conference that the standalone Oculus Quest, released earlier this year, will be the do-it-all headset for the near future. It’ll work with PCs via a USB-C cable by the end of the year, and is still compatible with older mobile VR apps.
I listened to John Carmack give a pained goodbye to the Gear VR, saying that Samsung’s headsets weren’t ideal because of compromises required to fit a wider variety of Samsung phone screens. There were a lot of Gear VR variations, with an increasing number of little packed-in adapters to fit the Galaxy phones.
For Oculus, the Gear VR was clearly a convenient marriage before the company was acquired by Facebook. It was a stepping stone. It was a way for Oculus to get a great display and a mobile platform. Samsung got Oculus’ insight and VR ecosystem. But now that Facebook is encouraging potential customers to live entirely in Facebook’s world, the closed-off, standalone headsets made by Facebook are the future.
How do you fit this in VR goggles?
Samsung: Its phones keep evolving
VR was a wild idea for Samsung to show off alongside smartwatches at Galaxy phone events for years. Now, maybe, the focus is shifting. There’s 5G. Heck, there are folding phones. How do you fit a folding phone in a VR headset?
Samsung’s response to my question about happened to the Gear VR: “Samsung Gear VR is not compatible with Galaxy Note10 and Note10 Plus. We remain committed to innovating in VR and AR to deliver incredible new experiences to our consumers. We believe 5G will enable the next growth of immersive content streaming for AR/VR and that’s where Samsung has been focused. For example, we created the Samsung XR Content Capture Studio, one of two studios in the US that is able to do 3D volumetric video, with state of the art equipment for producing AR and VR content. In September, we produced content with the Dallas Cowboys and AT&T for an immersive AR and 5G experience that fans can enjoy at the stadium throughout the season. At SDC 2019, we recreated one of the XR Content Capture Studios with partners in the immersive entertainment space to create new experiences, allowing developers to learn about our AR capabilities.”
So, like Google, it’s in a period of R&D. Who knows what will come next.
iPhones largely sat this one out
A number of unimpressive little iPhone-compatible VR goggles have cluttered stores, but none of them were better than the simple folding Google Cardboard devices. Apple didn’t optimize iPhones for any set of VR goggles, like Samsung and Google.
This meant that iPhone owners were pretty much out of the loop on the world of Gear VR and Daydream.
And this, maybe, is what killed phone VR most of all: Your phone determined what you could use. A Samsung phone for the Gear VR. A particular Android phone for the Daydream. VR, a place where it’s already hard to gather people, started to get fragmented.
Oh, the memories.
A great demo for grandparents and kids
Those YouTube videos of grandmas gasping with a VR headset on weren’t staged: It was a thing. I remember showing my mother-in-law a Samsung Gear VR, and she was so amazed she considered getting one (briefly).
My kids, when they were little, loved checking out demos too. The simple look-around-and-stay-seated vibe of phone-based VR made it perfect for casual watching. So few of those early apps even had any way to interact, so I didn’t have to worry about a kid having to point or click.
Times have changed. VR headsets now come with elaborate controllers, like the Oculus Quest’s button-studded things. I love them, but casual first-timers will have no idea what to do, and I can’t guide them because I can’t see what they’re looking at. Sigh.
Almost all VR now has full motion controls. (Oculus Quest)
VR is no longer about sitting still
My favorite experiences in VR involve waving my arms around and walking across a room. Hand tracking, controller tracking and full motion in space: These are possible because of self-contained systems that use cameras and computer vision.
The Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View were sit-down experiences, where you’d just look around. The Gear VR and Daydream are still great for 360-degree movies. At film festivals like Tribeca in New York, the Gear VR’s still used to play VR movies.
But, the future of VR has spread out. And, at the same time, stopped being a thing used to try to sell phones. I loved using the Gear VR and Daydream View — I still remember the weirdness of watching movies in a virtual theater, playing trippy games like Virtual Virtual Reality, going for little dives in virtual aquarium apps, playing poker with strangers and seeing how strangely intimate adult entertainment is. But I never wanted to carry either of them in my bag. And eventually I stopped wanting to drop a phone in or check on which apps needed to be updated.
I still use VR. But that dream of $99 plug-in-a-phone VR… well, it’s dead now. The VR world has moved on to better things. Let’s pay tribute to the spirits of VR Past, and remember the ghosts of what could have been.
Oculus Virtual Reality Facebook Google Samsung