It’s been clear for some time that Google’s virtual reality ambitions extend beyond Cardboard and now we’re seeing the first hints that the company will be integrating VR functionality into Android N, the next major release of the company’s mobile operating system.

Beyond regular hiring for VR specific jobs (a recent slew of which heavily suggested the company is working on it’s own VR headset beyond Cardboard), and dedicating a new VP specifically focusing on virtual reality, the company appears soon to be building virtual reality functionality directly into Android

google cardboard camera
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Currently, the company’s ‘Cardboard‘ initiative is a series of low-cost smartphone VR viewers which do little more than cradle your phone behind a pair of lenses. While this provides a simple, low-cost taste of VR, it’s significantly lacking in performance compared to Samsung’s Gear VR headset which is undoubtedly the current bar-setter for mobile virtual reality. Gear VR achieves this by tapping into specially designed software capabilities of compatible Samsung phones, as well as augmenting the phone’s limited tracking capabilities with hardware inside the headset.

Google is well aware, and the company appears to be readying native virtual reality functionality that will be part of the Android operating system’s core—the assumed objective being to get Android’s VR capabilities on par with Gear VR (which is, after all, running on Android-powered phones).

Ars Technica reports that a new developer preview build for Android N, the next major version of Google’s mobile operating system, includes the first hints of this directly integrated VR functionality.

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It looks like apps will soon be able to register themselves as something called a “VR Listener” or “VR Helper.” In the latest Android N you can see this by navigating to Settings -> Apps -> Configure apps (the gear button in the top right) -> Special Access -> VR helper services. It looks like this will work similarly to the “Notification Access” screen (used by Android Wear to bring notifications to a smartwatch)—the VR helper services screen will show a list of apps that plug into this API, and users can allow or deny the permission.

In the settings strings there’s a permissions warning related to the VR service that states “[app name] will be able to run when you are using applications in virtual reality mode.” It sounds like when Android kicks over into whatever this VR mode is, the helper app will be able to pop up and do… something. We’re not sure what.

The report also indicates a new hardware support flag called “config_sustainedPerformanceModeSupported,” which Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo suspects might be a special capability allowing for continuous and direct use of a phone’s CPU and GPU in a similar way that Gear VR manages performance on compatible Samsung’s phones.

Google is planning at least three more developer preview builds of Android N before it launches later in Q3 2016, so we may continue to see VR functions added over time.

star wars google cardboard viewers vr verizon (3)
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Beyond tweaking Android for VR, what is going on at the hardware end of things? Back in February, a report by the Financial Times suggested that Google would launch their own dedicated VR headset this year (that report also indicated that VR functionality would be built directly into Android).

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The launch of a Google VR headset will put the company in a curious position with Samsung, who is of course a major player in the Android smartphone ecosystem and has collaborated with Google to produce Nexus devices in the past. A new Google VR headset could potentially be compatible with Samsung’s Gear VR-compatible smartphones, or it could exclude them; either way, the platform politics are likely to get awkward fast, especially with prominent Google products like YouTube still missing from Gear VR.

With the company’s annual I/O conference coming up next month, we expect to hear much more about virtual reality from Google soon.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • kalqlate

    Mobile VR is about the explode! Google has no motive to segment the market as Facebook and Samsung do. I’ll bet their design will include optional hookup to PC, turning phone+headset into Rift/Valve equivalent.

    • TaxPayer

      Not enough juice to run true VR though, thats why the Oculus and the Vive are so demanding.

      • kalqlate

        You are correct, but maybe you didn’t fully understand…

        Gear VR: No ability to have the phone/headset serve as a tethered headset for PC CPU/GPU VR.

        Google’s device will hopefully allow you to do both: use the standard phone/headset for mobile VR ala Gear VR, but also allow the phone/headset to serve as headset for PC CPU/GPU VR, giving the equivalent capabilities of a PC-tethered Rift or Vive.

        If Google puts the capability of using your phone in an untethered Gear VR format AND as a tethered Rift/Vive device, and the price is the same or lower than either the Rift or Vive into one device, which device would you choose?

        Further, I imagine tethered VR will be around for a long while as it will always be the state of the art, but NVidia, AMD, and others are continually pushing up the processing capability while pushing down the power, heat, and cost of mobile GPU devices. The next generation of mobile GPUs will allow mobile VR to be as powerful as today’s desktop GPUs, thus allowing untethered mobile VR of next year to be as powerful as tethered Rift and Vive of today.

  • Google’s virtual reality ambitions extend beyond Cardboard and now we’re seeing the first hints that the company will be integrating VR functionality into Android N, the next major release of the company’s mobile operating system.

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