Google has unveiled a new kind of standalone virtual reality headset that does not need to be wired to a PC or external sensors to offer more realistic graphics and movement tracking, in the hopes of kick-starting what has been sluggish consumer adoption of the technology.
Device makers HTC and Lenovo are working with Google and chipmaker Qualcomm to launch the headsets starting later this year, Google announced at its I/O developer conference in Silicon Valley on Wednesday.
“The whole device is designed just for VR,” said Clay Bavor, Google’s head of VR, drawing a contrast with devices such as its own Daydream viewer and Samsung’s Gear VR, which repurpose a standard smartphone to form the basis of a headset’s screen and processing power.
The new headset will offer “positional tracking”, a technique that helps users to look and move around inside a virtual world that until now has only been available on PC-based VR headsets such as Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive. Positional tracking is seen by many in the VR industry as essential for achieving the comfort and realism that will win over more users to the technology.
All this makes Google’s standalone headset easier to use, Mr Bavor said. “Getting into VR is as easy as picking the thing up,” he said. “By building every part of the device specifically for VR, we’ve been able to optimise everything . . . to give a stronger sense of being transported.”
Most of Google’s I/O keynote was focused on artificial intelligence, with improvements to its virtual assistant and enhancements to apps such as YouTube and Photos. While those products are available on hundreds of millions of devices today, virtual reality is a lot further away from mainstream adoption.
Google, like other companies investing heavily in VR, is still experimenting with products and designs to see what will capture consumers’ attention, in the hopes of avoiding a fate similar to 3D TVs, whose novelty quickly faded.
Facebook’s Oculus and Intel have each previously shown off their own prototypes of standalone VR headsets but neither company has yet released a version that consumers can buy.
Intel has said that the first headsets based on its “Project Alloy” design, which it describes as “merged reality” because it incorporates elements from the real world as well as digital images, will launch in the fourth quarter of 2017. Oculus previewed its “Santa Cruz” prototype of a fully integrated VR headset, which unlike its Rift headset does not require a wired PC connection, at its Connect developer conference last October.
Google is working with mobile chipmaker Qualcomm on the device. Qualcomm first showed a prototype for a standalone VR headset in September, in the form of a “reference design” to demonstrate to manufacturers what was possible with its latest chipsets and sensors.
“Our companies share the same vision: to make it possible for everyone to enjoy rich and immersive VR experiences on a smartphone device or a dedicated heat-mounted display while being fully mobile, rather than being restricted by cables or limited to predefined rooms set up for outside-in tracking,” said Keith Kressin, senior vice-president for product management at Qualcomm Technologies.
With its latest standalone product, Google’s new WorldSense platform is building on its experience with the Daydream virtual reality software that it unveiled a year ago and its Tango augmented reality sensors.
Until now, Google has offered two separate platforms for virtual and augmented reality. Tango was first released in 2014 and the first smartphones featuring its twin-camera system were released only within the past year by Lenovo and Asus. Daydream was announced a year ago with its Pixel smartphone, released in October, the first compatible device that consumers could buy.
Developers of Daydream apps say that usage data suggest sales of the headset remain small, in part due to the short supply of smartphones that meet the specifications in screen resolution and processing power that Google’s system demands. Only a handful of Daydream compatible devices are on the market, from manufacturers including Motorola and Huawei. Google said on Wednesday that the latest devices from Samsung and LG would support Daydream later this year.
The virtual reality market continues to attract new entrants even as sales to consumers remain slow to take off. Microsoft’s latest version of Windows 10 will support a variety of what it calls “mixed reality” headsets made by manufacturers including Acer and HP, which will ship this summer.
Samsung released a new version of its Gear VR headset, which incorporates its flagship Galaxy smartphones, when it launched its S8 in April. The new Gear also includes a motion-sensitive controller similar to the one that Google introduced with Daydream. Tencent is also planning to launch a virtual-reality headset later this year, people familiar with the matter have told the Financial Times.