Daydream Nation

Clay Bavor, VP of Virtual Reality for Google, introduces the Daydream View VR headset during the presentation of new Google hardware in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 4, 2016.
Beck Diefenbach | Reuters
Clay Bavor, VP of Virtual Reality for Google, introduces the Daydream View VR headset during the presentation of new Google hardware in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 4, 2016.

It's a couple of weeks before the Daydream View headset launches, and at Google's Mountain View headquarters, the team has filled a room with pieces of its past. The tables are littered with fabric swatches, molded foam shells, and things that look like clunky black carnival masks — actually, early 3D-printed mockups of the View's face section. Someone has dumped out a boxful of little plastic discs in varying shapes and sizes, marked with curt admonitions: edge too sharp on one, buttons don't make sense on another.

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I've seen dozens of VR prototypes from various companies, research facilities, and private tinkerers in the past few years. Overwhelmingly, they're technological proofs of concept. When Valve created a mini-museum commemorating the development of its Vive headset, for instance, it was essentially a timeline of different motion tracking systems. But Daydream is different. Its basic premise isn't far from the basic Cardboard platform that Google launched in 2014, albeit with a major performance boost and a new controller. Instead of the next big tech advance, the Daydream View team has spent the last year and a half poring over ways to bring a futuristic technology down to earth.

Virtual reality has always been tinged with science fiction. In some ways, this is a good thing — images of the Matrix and the Holodeck have consistently fueled interest in the technology, even when it was primitive and largely inaccessible. But it's also a sign that real, everyday VR doesn't yet fit into most people's lives. Headsets are great at trade shows, but not the comfort of our homes.

Google's answer to this has been the Daydream View, potentially the first of several Daydream headsets. Google VR lead Clay Bavor describes Daydream as a "fanciful" platform, and the View is supposed to embody one manifestation of that: a super-soft device based on the world of clothing, not consumer electronics. But while Google is in the middle of a huge push to make its own hardware, this is still largely uncharted territory — for it or almost anyone else.

The Daydream View was conceived in mid-2015, about a year after Google publicly got into the virtual reality game. Its Google Cardboard experiment had stripped VR down to its most basic elements: a mobile phone, a pair of magnifying lenses, and a cardboard case that held the two together. Cardboard helped kickstart a boom in mobile VR, but it had inherent limitations. Users had to physically hold the headsets up to their faces, and interaction was limited to head pointing and a single control button. But outside Google, the only other options at that point were relatively clunky, expensive, and — in most cases — still awaiting a consumer launch.

"We had just come off from a lot of success in Google Cardboard, which is a very simple device, and kind of seen what was coming out in the industry, but nothing had really taken flight yet," says Andrew Nartker, product manager for Daydream and Google VR. "Two things that people weren't really, we think, doing justice to — or solving in a way that could scale to everybody — were comfort and interaction."

Google's starting point for the View was a stripped-down frame that made even Cardboard seem baroque, however. It looks like a double funnel made of cheap yellowish-white plastic, and it's essentially the primordial VR headset: just add lenses to one side and clip a phone to the other. The View incorporates features like an NFC chip that sends the phone into VR mode, but this shape is the core headset "technology" — the bit designed to actually get people into VR. As the room full of prototypes suggests, making that process pleasant was the hard part.

When the Google Pixel, the first Daydream phone, came out, reviewers dinged its bland design. But when the Daydream team talks about the View, "generic" doesn't seem like it would be an insult. Every part of the headset is loosely cribbed from familiar soft goods: ski goggles, shoes, T-shirts, jackets, and even things like tents and kites. "At least today, there aren't all that many VR headsets out in the world," says Bavor. "We have borrowed from things that people already wear."

For all that, there's no piece of clothing with the exact requirements of a virtual reality headset. Headsets are heavier than just about any pair of sporting goggles, particularly with the big-screen phones that work best in mobile VR. Fit and balance are an ongoing problem, especially for people with glasses — a population that includes Bavor himself. At the same time, Google didn't want to overwhelm people with adjustments and fitting options, including ubiquitous over-the-head strap. "It's intimidating to a lot of new users," says Nartker. "There's not a lot of products that exist in the market today that have a mohawk top strap." In fact, getting rid of it was a core goal.

As reviews like mine noted, the single band is one of the most difficult View elements to get used to. But it could have been much worse — and much heavier. Ironically, the seemingly bare-bones double funnel used too much plastic, so it was replaced by an even more skeletal frame. 3D-printed masks tested the distribution of pressure over the face, aiming to spread it evenly across wearers' foreheads and cheekbones. Extra space around the eyes was added, in order to better accommodate glasses. Then the masks were reproduced in a lighter combination of foam and fabric, which shipped with the final View. The band was angled precisely in order to distribute the weight best; in different prototypes, you can spot the way it's been tilted it up and down by a few degrees.

Physical comfort, in the form of weight and fit, wasn't the only concern. People needed to be able to look at the device and immediately know what to do with it, especially if they were new to VR. Unexpected flourishes — even elegant ones — had to be pared down. Take, for example, the Daydream View fastener, which holds the phone into the headset. As it stands, the View uses an elastic loop on the front panel, which stretches across a hook on the top. But the team also tested snaps and zippers, as well as a magnet design that would have created a seamless seal. "We love magnets at Google. Magnets were exciting," Nartker recalls fondly. Without an obvious fastener like the elastic tab, though, people didn't understand how the phone was supposed to fit. "A bunch of user tests showed us that the other things we thought were cooler, better, more interesting, actually weren't."

Clothing manufacturing was also unfamiliar to Google, and it came with its own challenges. In an average piece of clothing, "if the stitch is a few millimeters off but it's a straight line, it's fine," says Daydream View product manager Sandeep Waraich. "In consumer electronics, every millimeter counts." Among other things, Google worked with manufacturers on a laser leveling system that would make lining up the grain of the fabric easier. But the difficulty of working with cloth is one reason that you can only buy the View in three different tones of the same heathered texture, not a plethora of different patterns.

Like a lot of Google's prototype elements, looking at early color swatches inspires a twinge of wistfulness. It makes sense that the company abandoned less flexible materials like suede, and nixed a brightly colored mesh that failed to block out light. Solid-colored cloth apparently just looked like plastic from a distance, which undercut the aesthetic of the View. The overwhelming impression, though, is that the View could have looked so much weirder. Google took its best shot at the all-purpose hoodie of VR, but hiding behind the scenes, the motorcycle jacket and retro minidress of VR are there as well. The world just isn't ready for them… at least not yet.

Bavor mentions more colors as a possibility in upcoming years — I put in my own suggestion for a FiestaWare-tinged bright avocado green. But the alternate controllers Google considered are less likely to see the light of day. Developed in tandem with the headset, the earliest controller concepts look like an almost random assortment of oversized worry stones, board game tokens, and cheap cooking accessories. One is a long, flat wand, another a tiny square with a thumbprint depression. One reminds me of a makeup compact, or the deliberately surreal seashell e-reader from It Follows. They're all exaggerated and futuristic in a way that the final controller, a straightforward Twinkie-shaped remote, isn't.

They also feel a little bit ridiculous. "Orientation tough," drily notes a critique written on several amorphous oblong shapes. Another looks like a luggage tag, with a neat hole punched in one corner; I fumble around for a few seconds, but I'm not even sure what to do with it. All of them might have reinforced the idea that VR hardware was for techies cosplaying sci-fi characters, not everyday use. There's a reason the seashell reader wasn't real, and there's a reason these aren't, either.

The Daydream team quickly decided on a solid remote shaped differently on each end, so people could easily point it the right direction. The top became a trackpad, similar to the Gear VR's onboard controller. "People love trackpads because it signals to them, it's kind of like my phone — versus, like, a joystick or a D-pad," says Nartker. It was slender at first, but user feedback led the team to a heftier, rounder body. "We thought we wanted a flatter, thinner design just because it's aesthetically pleasing. But it turns out that your palm needs something to cup and hold."

Unlike the rest of Daydream, where ergonomics were a thornier problem than tech, the controller also needed some serious engineering. It was based loosely on gyroscopic TV remotes, which allow for a similar pointing mechanic. But if people were using it for long periods of heavy interaction — and, after all, it aspires to be the "mouse of VR" — it needed to be more precise and less prone to drift. The remote's guts were tested in a black brick that Nartker calls the "garage door opener," and an external case provided the near-final remote with true positional tracking, like that of the Rift or Vive. This meant that while Google was simulating full motion controls, it had a real-world standard to compare them to.

The ultimate dream is that final Daydream systems will incorporate this motion tracking, ideally through cameras mounted in the phone or headset. But according to Nartker, we're not there yet — even with inside-out tracking prototypes like Oculus' Santa Cruz headset. "Just getting your headset tracked in space is a pretty challenging problem that nobody's really cracked yet in the industry, let alone getting a controller to track itself in space," he says. A number of companies, including Oculus, Microsoft, and Qualcomm, have offered their take on inside-out tracking. But they don't include advanced interactive options yet, and existing headset-mounted trackers like Leap Motion are still solving problems like reliability and range.

The View isn't the limit of Google's ambitions, even for Daydream. Google is rumored to be working on projects like eye tracking, and Bavor confirms that the Daydream name could hypothetically apply not just to mobile headsets, but all-in-one devices. Whatever the future holds, though, its first product could outlast an average piece of electronics. "Most of the heavy lifting is done by the phone," says Bavor. "So it's more about 'What is the phone upgrade cycle?' than 'What is the headset upgrade cycle?'"

And even years from now, the View's simplicity is supposedly here to stay. "The more active elements you add to the headset, the more complex it becomes in terms of cost and manufacturability, but also most importantly setup. You imagine plugging lots of little things in and connecting things and so on," he says, disapproving. "We want it to be simple, we want it to be frictionless to get in and out of VR. And the simple, largely passive headset design really helps with that."

If I could only get it in green.