At Google IO 2016, some Android advances made available in Android N’s “final beta” were announced, and among them, Daydream VR, the next-generation virtual reality (VR) specifications, APIs and user interface (UI) for Android. The consumer handsets compatible with this new VR technology will be available “this fall” according to official sources, but Nexus 6P users have a chance to experience Daydream well before the rest of the world.
The only official Daydream VR development hardware
As the most advanced Android development smartphone, the Nexus 6P hardware (built by Huawei) is already capable of running the latest software improvements of Android N.
Its system-on-chip (SoC) also features CPU cores that are powerful enough to run VR applications at a speed that is representative, from a developer’s perspective. The CPU is important because it runs the app’s logic, and orchestrates the graphics processor’s (GPU) work. All of this made the Nexus 6P Google’s best pick for Android VR developers. A chart showing the relative performance of Android N recommended handset shows as much:
However, it is also clear that the Cardboard application user interface needed to be improved to remove known user interface friction points. Cardboard has set a very decent VR experience “floor”, but Daydream is designed to raise the mobile VR ceiling (Official Daydream page link).
Higher VR performance with Android N
In VR, performance is an integral part of the user experience and not an add-on bonus. Here, “performance” mostly means “low latency.” If you are not familiar with the term, or with this context, VR latency represents the time it takes to display a new image after the user induced an action. This is also called “motion to photon latency” in VR circles. To the Human brain, going from 50ms (milliseconds) latency down to 20ms brings a very perceptible difference.
Android N has a number of improvements to help developers reduce the overall latency in their apps to sub-20ms, according to Google’s internal developers. Improvements have been made across the board, going from how user motion is gathered and transmitted to the app, down to how the final image is rendered and presented to the user. Every step along the VR pipeline has some potential to be optimized for latency. At the end the pipeline, the Nexus 6P presents a high-resolution image on its 1ms refresh rate display.
Better user interface (UI)
Google Cardboard is very simple to use, but when users want to find new content or tweak settings, they have to remove the headset from their head and remove the phone from the Cardboard in order to use the touch screen. That adds quite a bit of friction to the general VR experience. The original Cardboard physical user interface is also limited to one action button.
With Daydream and Android N, users gets a premium VR user interface that is very much like what we have on PC: it is really a VR launcher (homepage) in which you can browse for apps, and launch/exit VR apps, using only the headset and the new motion controller. Applications such as YouTube are also scheduled to get a VR interface at some point.
That makes the VR experience so much better since you can keep your phone in the Cardboard until you are completely done with your VR activity.
Regular Nexus 6P users can join the fun too
The Android Beta Program is for developers, but Google doesn’t restrict “enthusiasts” Nexus 6P owners from joining it. You don’t need to be a registered developer and don’t have to pay a fee to switch a Nexus 6P into “developer mode” by going to Settings>About and tap seven times on Build Number. Using “Beta” software requires doing a little bit of research and homework, but it should be within range of most users.
At the moment, developers are busy using Daydream and implementing the upgrades introduced at Google IO 2016, but we expect more polished demos to be available well before the final version will be introduced in the fall.
Daydream is going to dramatically improve VR on the Android platform, and getting to try it ahead of the curve is yet another perk that Nexus 6P users will dangle in front of everyone else. Living on the bleeding edge of the Android experience has always been one of the main motivation for Nexus users, and this year the Nexus 6P embodies it.