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Google tailored its fabric Daydream headset for VR first-timers

The $79 device is just the first move to turn Android into the de facto operating system for virtual reality.

Google Unveils New Products, Including New Pixel Phone Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

With virtual reality hardware still in its early stages, Google sees an opportunity to put Android at the center of things.

While Google unveiled the rough outlines of its VR effort, called Daydream, at I/O, it came more clearly into focus Tuesday when the company debuted its new, affordable smartphone-powered VR headset as well as Pixel, the first Daydream-compatible phone.

Most immediately, the Daydream View headset serves as a rival to Samsung’s Gear VR, answering many critiques of that device. It’s much easier to get going with Daydream View and a Pixel than using Gear and a Samsung Galaxy. The phone just pops in and it automatically opens the Daydream home screen.

The headset is lighter and more comfortable, too. My colleague, Ina Fried, scoffed when Google called it cozy onstage, but upholstered with its T-shirt-like fabric, it really is soft and snuggly. Much better than strapping scratchy cardboard to your face or a huge chunk of plastic.

But Google’s play here isn’t just taking on Samsung. It’s really about trying to make Android the default operating system for virtual reality devices, particularly those of the mobile variety. If VR is going to be a serious part of the future of entertainment, it’s going to have to be easier to give it a try than sequestering off a room in your house for immersive video.

Daydream pairs with the new Google Pixel phones, but it will also work with a bunch of phones from other manufacturers that are certified as compatible with Google’s VR headsets. Such phones will have to pack a high-end screen and sufficient processing power, as well as a shape that fits into Daydream headsets. Similarly, Google has said it is open-sourcing the design for the Daydream hardware so that other manufacturers can create compatible headsets and controllers.

With Daydream View, Google picked up on the fact that new hardware can be confusing. The tiny controller is designed to be drop-dead simple, with a trackpad, two buttons and a volume switch. It is also motion-sensing, so you can navigate VR worlds like you would with a Nintendo Wii. Plus, the controller is stored in the headset when you’re not using it, which is supposed to help keep you from losing it, Google says.

Like other VR makers, Google is partnering with content producers like Netflix, Hulu and the New York Times to bring their shows and stories into the Daydream headset. But Google also has a lot of its own content that it is making VR compatible, too, including Google Street View and 360-degree images from Google Photo.

Mobile-based experiences are likely to be the way most people try virtual reality and Google knows this. And, with Daydream, Google is looking to help all the first-timers come on board and, hopefully, stick around as well.

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