Google Daydream, a VR Dream for Storytellers Jun. 12th, 2017 Aaron Stanush
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Google Daydream, a VR Dream for Storytellers

June 12th, 2017

At the conclusion of the 2016 E3 conference, there seemed to be a turning point in the perception of VR. Sure, you still needed a powerful gaming PC to run powerful gaming rigs like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift — but increasingly, more quality games and experiences are coming out of the woodwork. A third player even entered the space with Sony’s PlayStation VR — even more accessible to consumers since they can simply buy a PS4 instead of building a PC.
[NB: Four Kitchens recently got to try out some of this powerful PC-based VR, Web Chef Lucy Weinmeister wrote all about it, here.]

Then, in November 2016, an even more accessible VR device came on the scene — Google’s Daydream View. This mobile VR headset would directly compete with Samsung’s Gear VR, released a year earlier. While the tech might be comparable, Google has the edge in 1) being directly tied to the Android operating system, and 2) an edge in forming relationships with content/app producers. However, in order to use Daydream, you have to own a Pixel — Google’s newest flagship smartphone.

I’ve spent some time with both the Daydream View and HTC Vive, and they are worlds apart. One is powered by a smartphone and the other a gaming PC, so it’s not hard to imagine that the overall performance of the Vive blows the Daydream out of the water. But, there’s an attractive idea around devices like the Gear and Daydream — could everyone that has a smartphone, have these enticing VR experiences at their fingertips?

Daydream, VR for the People

As much as I loved playing Vive games like Waltz of the Wizard and the 3D drawing app Tilt Brush, I’m not going to be investing in a gaming PC anytime soon. And as much as I want to celebrate Daydream as a democratization of VR, the truth is it still only works on Google’s top-tier Pixel phone. With no promise for compatibility with the iPhone anytime soon, Google is taking a huge risk, and yet, no one can argue that the Daydream is more accessible to the average consumer.

Hey Google, what can I do with Daydream?

I still chuckle a little each time I strap my phone into its cloth-covered snowboard goggles, but when I do the phone reliably launches directly into VR-mode. Next, I orient the remote control — a simple little device, with only two buttons and a trackpad — and I’m off to the Daydream app.

Google Daydream screenshot

I’d put Daydream’s VR apps into the following categories:

  • Games
  • News / Journalism
  • Art / Experimental
  • Simulation

Missing from this list is 360° videos, because their use spans a lot of the categories above. 360° videos also play an interesting role because they’ve helped bridge the hardware gap in that anyone can view these videos in YouTube, click and drag their mouse/finger to see every angle, it’s just not as immersive as if you were turning your head to change the viewpoint. While the appeal for VR in games, art, and simulation seems clear, the real sea-change I predict will be in the use of VR for news and journalism.

VR Journalism

As I experienced first hand at the 2016 Online News Association conference, the journalism industry is incredibly excited about the possibilities of VR and 360° video. The New York Times has been one of the early adopters, producing VR content since the early days of Google Cardboard. Since then, they’ve continued creating high-quality content on topics of immigration, ISIS, space, and even a sponsored piece for KIA. The platform works well both for whimsical arts and culture fare as well as hard-hitting, immersive political coverage.

The Guardian hasn’t produced many pieces yet, but they’ve wowed people with “6×9: A virtual experience of solitary confinement” — which combines CGI and audio clips so that viewers can better empathize with what life is like in a claustrophobic prison cell. If VR can be a tool for amping up empathy in stories, this is the best example I’ve seen.

Other news organizations are making a play for the VR space, too. Both USA Today and The Wall Street Journal have Daydream apps, but their current iterations feel like unimaginative recreations of news websites, with the core activities of watching non-360° videos and reading articles by scrolling with the Daydream remote. I get that these are only initial attempts to get their brands into the VR space, but I feel they are part of a misguided trend to simply recreate anything in VR, even non-VR experiences. The Netflix VR and HBO VR apps are great examples of this bad VR — what’s absorbing about watching non-360° movies on a screen (literally) the size of your smartphone, but with a headset strapped to your face?

WebVR: Game Changer

WebVR is a JavaScript API that, as it’s name suggests, makes VR content accessible via web browsers. It was fairly obscure until February 2017 when Google announced its Chrome browser was now VR-compatible — including using your Daydream headset to access VR content with Chrome on Android, bypassing the Daydream app altogether. Web VR is important because developers who want to build games and VR experiences no longer have to go through the Google Play app store.

“…developers who want to build VR content no longer have to go through the app store”

It all feels deeply reminiscent of the ongoing battle of the open web vs. native apps. If you want to build a VR app for the Apple or Google app store, you’ll need to use their respective technologies, design guidelines, and get approval from the app store gatekeepers. However, if you want to build a VR experience and publish it instantly to the web, WebVR makes that possible. There are already some aspirational WebVR projects like an interactive documentary, architectural tours, and a bunch of experiments curated by Google. At the recent Google I/O event, Google announced new Daydream-compatible devices and major Daydream software update coming later this year.

An interesting space to watch will be the balance of streaming versus downloading for video/graphics-heavy VR content. Apps are arguably better at downloading and locally storing data, which is important as some of the New York Times VR content weighs in at over 1GB. Looking at the big picture, simply having the option to develop and publish on an open VR platform is going to be incredibly important going forward.

Making Content Go… Further

In our 11+ years of designing and building digital solutions for our clients, open source and its culture of learning and sharing has remained a part of our values. We’re excited to continue researching VR and AR to explore how these new experiences can help publishers, journalists, and educational organizations reach their audiences in compelling ways.

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