In case you are somehow unaware, this time next week Google’s developer conference, Google I/O will be in full swing and by this time next week, we will have been made privy to a number of the latest announcements from Google, following the keynote presentation. While much of the focus of the event will be on the usual suspects including the latest version of Android, N, possible insights into Nexus for 2016, Android Auto and Android TV, it is also extremely obvious now that virtual reality will be playing a big role. In fact, this week saw a couple of reports coming through which suggest it might actually play an even bigger role than any of us had initially thought.
So what do we know? Well, not much in all honesty. Earlier in the year, reports came through detailing that Google was amping up its virtual reality ambitions in 2016. This was largely thought to be resulting in two new products that will likely come, though. The first, being an upgraded version of Google Cardboard and possibly in the form of Cardboard+ (or Cardboard++) and the second product was largely thought to be some form of standalone virtual reality headset. Although, the early indications were this standalone version might not make it to market until the end of the year, possibly even early 2017. So these new units were largely the sum of what was expected.
However, things changed this week when suddenly a term being dubbed 'Android VR' starting floating about. The first noting of the name appeared only a couple of days ago when an eagle-eyed person spotted the reference to Android VR hidden within some code for the latest preview of Unreal Engine. Then yesterday the notion of Android VR got a significant injection of life when Peter Rojas took to Twitter and started sharing some more information. Now, before we get into what Rojas said, it does need to be made clear that none of this is confirmed or set in stone and is open to being incorrect, incomplete or subject to change. Disclaimer aside, Rojas essentially was looking to confirm that Android VR will definitely be announced next week during Google I/O.
While that is not exactly groundbreaking news, the follow-up tweets from Rojas is where the real meat on the bone is. If correct, then Android VR will be better than Samsung’s Gear VR, but not quite as good as HTC’s Vive. Which generally makes sense. Samsung’s Gear VR is by design a cheaper virtual reality headset and one which is made to be affordable. A reason likely why it is proving so popular with Oculus recently confirming that one million users had used the platform during last month alone. In contrast, the HTC Vive is essentially the over the top version of virtual reality which gives you just about the best experience you can have from the platform. It is VR to the max. However, like the Gear VR, Vive, has its limitations with the most notable one being its very high price. Another clear disadvantage for Vive is the fact that it requires certain high-spec hardware to run with and does need to be tethered to a computer at all times. Although, the experience is there to be had.
The Gear VR suffers from a similar problem but at the other end of the spectrum. While it is cheap and does not need to be tethered to a PC, it does need to be tethered to a smartphone and not just any smartphone, but tethered to a Samsung smartphone and not just any Samsung smartphone, but one of the recent high-profile flagship options. Which in some respects, makes it as expensive as the Vibe - if you don't already have the latest and greatest from Samsung. As per Rojas tweets, Android VR will fit in nicely between these two existing market leading products. How it will fit in is where the questions remain.
“Better than Gear VR, not as good as Rift/Vive” is the exact wording of what was said and it is difficult to quantify this in real terms without more information. However, one additional piece of information which came from the tweets does provide a little insight into what better could be referring to. The information was that Android VR will be a dedicated (i.e. standalone) piece of equipment. This already elicits support for the experience being better than the Gear VR as being able to make use of a standalone headset will offer a much more engaging experience. Firstly, it will not be limited to device compatibility and just as importantly, it will not be dependent on hardware requirements. If you have an older phone, this won't matter as unlike the Gear VR, you won't need to connect to your phone to make use of Android VR. While the HTC Vive does also need to be threatened, the fact that Android VR Is now being thought of as not as good as Vive does indicate that in spite of being standalone, the actual VR content and experience is what will let it down, when compared to Vive. And this is a very important point to note. As in truth, the actual experience is everything with virtual reality and while it is standalone, the impression being left by all the recent talk is that experience is not as good as what is already on offer with the Vive. While it is said to be an experience which is better than the Gear VR, it is possible that better refers to the more independent nature of a standalone unit. After all, the Gear VR content, selection of games and general ecosystem that is already in place is one to be reckoned with and for the VR experience on Android VR to be classed as better, it would need some real clarifying.
Of course, what this does also raise the question of - is the price. What will the price of Android VR be? Immediate assumptions would lead to it being somewhere in between the HTC Vive and the Gear VR. After all, this is a device-free standalone product and one which is better than the Gear VR but not as good as the Vive, so it stands to reason that it will be priced cheaper than Vive (to compete and account for the lesser experience) but will still need to be priced higher than the Gear VR. Not only to account for the better experience but also to account for the additional hardware which will be needed in a standalone unit. The real question is how far away from Vive and how close to Gear VR, can Google price Android VR at? The closer they can get to that low Gear VR price, the more chance that this will be an extremely solid and immediate winning device.
Then we have the whole Nexus thing. Just because Google is due to be announcing Android VR does not mean that it will be available at the same time. So if this is a new product en route then it seems quite plausible that it will come along when the next Nexus or Nexus(s) come through. So there is every chance that it could come in the form of a Nexus Android VR headset. Speaking of which and just for food for thought, it is worth keeping in mind that the current rumors highly suggest HTC will be making this year’s Nexus smartphones, not one but two. HTC, the same people who have brought you the Vive. Coincidence? Maybe! Or maybe it is possible that Android VR could come in the form of a third HTC/Google hardware option for 2016, the HTC Nexus VR. To make the ‘we don’t know much’ point even more salient, there is no real evidence to even suggest that Android VR is even a singular product. It could very well be the name of a new Android platform dedicated to the furthering of virtual reality. Again, this is not the first time that we have heard about Google working on a unified Android VR platform and the name seems to make much more sense as a platform, than as an actual hardware product and especially as there is no current standalone Android VR platform for such a rumored device to make use of. And this would also just as easily accommodate the “Better than Gear VR, not as good as Rift/Vive” quote. As the actual software and platform experience could be better than the version encountered with the Gear VR, but not as good as that encountered with the HTC Vive.
The bottom line is that we just don’t know what Android VR is. What we do know is that Google does care a lot about virtual reality and they certainly will be announcing something next week on it. Whether it is a product or a platform remains to be seen, but what it hopefully will do is bring to the Android market the first real opportunity for a compatibility-wide and affordable way to engage with virtual reality. Hopefully.