As with any major announcement from Google, Daydream’s May 18 reveal came with its fair share of hyperbole and hubris. “Hundreds of millions of users” will have Daydream-enabled phones in a couple of years, claimed the company’s senior product manager, Brahim Elbouchikhi. This, I don’t doubt. People will own hundreds of millions of Android phones. And they will have the Daydream platform on them.
Whether developers and users will be doing anything with them is another thing entirely.
Essentially, Daydream faces challenges larger than just another tech provider trying to get hold of market share, given that VR is still very much in its infancy. The technology available on the mass market is still some way behind where it needs to be in order to deliver the immersive experience users deserve. Frankly, it’s also unclear what platform is going to be the killer app. Google may have built it but there are a number of challenges to overcome to ensure that the developers will come.
First up, there’s the challenge of raising awareness of virtual reality to consumers. Driving awareness of something that simply hasn’t existed before isn’t easy. It’s like trying to advertise the first TVs on the radio. The majority of people who have experienced VR so far will be those who’ve tried the affordable likes of Google Cardboard. A lot of fun but without head-tracking functionality, it remains “VR lite.” There’s also always the danger that people think this is what true virtual reality is.
Games developers are the folks driving the true VR experience, the fully immersive real-world environments that adapt to each user’s behavior and turn everything you thought you knew (and a lot you now realize you didn’t) about linear game development on its head.
Doing it properly means getting the tech right. And there is a lot of tech to get right. If your eyes and ears can’t convince your brain to truly believe what you’re seeing — either because the frame rate isn’t quite right or the resolution is off (the case for some of today’s commercially available VR tech) – then the suspension of disbelief can be broken.
So developers need to be mindful as to what they can realistically achieve with VR environments, such as they can be created using today’s consumer technologies. Certainly the most up to the minute smartphones can handle modestly complex VR environments but most users don’t have the latest tech to hand.
This is one of the challenges of being at the frontier of a new medium, particularly one we think we understand when we’ve only just scratched the surface. VR isn’t the “next” console or the ‘next’ cinema experience. It’s just “another” media that has potential — provided we resist the temptation to run before we can walk.
And this is what makes Google’s move a brave one. Digital has become something of an arms race; we get it. Facebook bought Oculus Rift, so Google has to get involved in VR somehow, if only to keep its shareholders happy. But as for offering a comprehensive suite of VR games and environments on the Android platform as it stands today? It’s going to be interesting to watch how that unfolds.
The capability of Android devices to deliver credible, immersive VR environments is one thing. Most can’t, but a few will be able to cope with less than real-world simulation (think stylized environments like Minecraft or Rebellion’s own VR game, Battlezone). But even given that, I can’t see which developer is going to want to put all their energies into creating intricate game structures for an app platform that struggles to make money. Fix that and they’ll be onto something.
Of course, there is a bigger picture to consider. Google has a history of getting involved in tech at the sharp end, either when there’s no market at all or a very dominant player already in place. Sometimes it pays off (Android phones) and sometimes it’s a bit of a white elephant (the jury’s still out on where Google Glass could re-emerge). But there’s no doubting that it’s a company with deep enough pockets to plunge in, suck it and see.
Could it be that this is the another sign that Google will somehow enter the serious gaming arena? We’ve already seen the Twitch competitor, YouTube Gaming, launch without fanfare last August. Is it worth taking a slice of the VR market just to be prepared for when Facebook decides to go proactive with Rift? Cynics might suggest it’s just another way for the company to gain more customer data than ever to serve to its advertisers.
Google has weathered such cynicism before. When Android was first launched, critics were unconvinced its OS could challenge Blackberry, iPhone and Nokia. But in a market as tender as VR, where missteps in product quality and experience could cost the industry years of progress repairing reputations, Google will have to overcome these challenges to make its VR offering more than just a Daydream.
Jason Kingsley (an Officer of the British Empire) is the cofounder of game developer Rebellion, which is set to release Battlezone VR in 2016.