Over the last 12 months or so we’ve been keeping an eye on Google’s aggressive hiring for its AR/VR team which, among other things, suggested that the company was working on new “mass production” hardware that would go beyond the simple smartphone snap-in Daydream headsets. This week we learned that there was indeed something to all that hiring, as Google has announced new ‘standalone’ headsets coming to the Daydream platform, fully self-contained VR devices, the first of which will come from HTC and Lenovo. Until those headsets launch later this year, Road to VR was among a select group that got to see one of Google’s early Daydream standalone prototypes.

At Google’s Mountain View campus, a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of I/O 2017, I sat at a literal round-table with core members of Google’s AR/VR team. No pictures were allowed. There, I learned about the latest Daydream and Tango developments that have happened since last year’s I/O. Core to the discussion was the new ‘standalone’ VR headsets coming to Daydream.

And while Google has announced that HTC and Lenovo are working on consumer versions of the device, and that the company has build a reference version with Qualcomm (for other companies to use as a foundation to make their own), the device I got my head in was even earlier than that; an internal prototype of roughly a year old. Lots of caveats were given: ‘the displays are more than two years old, the latency still needs to be optimized, you might see some dropped frames due to the old hardware and software’, I was told. And yet I was still very impressed with what I saw.

In the same conference room were two large circular carpets, maybe 10 feet in diameter. At the center I was handed an entirely black headset with a ‘halo’-style head strap (like PSVR) which tightened with a knob in the back and rested comfortably on the head. I could see that the lenses were shaped similar to PSVR’s, except they used a Fresnel design like the Vive. I could also see a clear indication that these headsets had eye-tracking hardware on board, but Google’s AR/VR team didn’t talk about that feature and it isn’t clear yet if we can expect eye-tracking in the final products.

Google didn’t let me snap pictures of the prototype, but the lenses looked similar to those on this Qualcomm reference headset | Photo by Road to VR

As I put the headset on and tightened the strap for comfort I found myself immersed in an underwater scene with translucent jellyfish floating about and a curious sea turtle who would swim by from time to time. Though Google hasn’t said much about the headset’s specs (and they are likely to differ for the consumer versions), the field of view looked close to what I’d expect from PSVR (~100 degrees diagonally), which is a huge improvement over the Daydream View’s more limited field of view.

Unlike prior Daydream headsets, which can only track rotation, the standalone Daydream headsets will use Google’s newly announced ‘WorldSense’ inside-out tracking to achieve positional tracking too, allowing you to walk around your environment just like you’d expect with the Vive, except with no external beacons for tracking.

I was able to comfortably roam the entire area of the circular carpet, getting up close to inspect the jelly fish floating around me. If I stepped toward the edge of the carpet, the virtual world would fade to black to let me know I was leaving the designated playspace. Theoretically WorldSense tracking could go much further than the carpet, but Google seems to be positioning it for now as a room-scale-capable system that you can use anywhere, rather than something you might roam your entire house with in one session. It isn’t clear yet if this is a design or technical limitation.

Though I only had my head inside this particular demo for five minutes or so, I was very impressed with the accuracy and latency of the tracking. At least for the relatively slow moving case of walking around and looking at things, it worked very well and felt much like I’d expect from a Vive. However, there were few static near-field objects in the demo with which to get up close and get a good assessment of any jitter, and it’ll take more time with the headset to see how it handles faster motions like ducking and dodging.

To achieve the inside-out tracking, Google tapped their Tango team to create a version of their optical inside-out tracking that’s optimized for VR, the result of which is WorldSense. On this prototype standalone Daydream headset, the tracking was achieved with two forward-facing cameras which are the only sensors—save for the usual on-board IMUs—that derive the positional information; Google confirmed the system doesn’t rely on a depth sensor.

To see how well the tracking could keep up, I tried covering of the two cameras on the front, and much to my surprise it still worked relatively well. Google said there’s a monoscopic mode which can kick in if occlusions like that were to happen, but generally the two cameras are working in tandem to do the tracking. I also tried looking straight down at the ground with my head just a foot or two above it (trying to give the cameras less distinct visuals to work with), and found that the tracking held up perfectly.

Google said the room was not pre-mapped and that this demo was specifically designed to wipe any WorldSense data so that I was experiencing the headset as if it was the first time it saw the room. That said, the company did confirm that WorldSense will learn over time and get even better if you use it in the same place repeatedly.

For a year-old device, the Daydream standalone VR headset prototype is very promising. Newer iterations in work by Google’s partners, which will use Android O (which is further optimized for VR), as well as newer and more powerful hardware (based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835), are likely to be a significantly more ‘premium’ experience compared to Daydream headsets that rely on a snap-in smartphone, thanks to their made-for-VR optimization and positional tracking which adds an entire new dimension to the mobile VR experience.

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  • Sponge Bob

    “…rather than something you might roam your entire house with in one session. It isn’t clear yet if this is a design or technical limitation.”

    It is a technical limitation and a pretty serious one

    it has to map its entire environment BEFORE first use
    so if you move to another room you’ll have to spend some time “mapping”…

    I see NoloVR as a much better solution, and more precise too
    slap it on a bookshelf, press the button and enjoy

    • Tyler Moore

      Did you read the article? The second to last paragraph says the demo they tried wiped all the spatial information so they experienced it as the first time the headset had seen the room.

      • Sponge Bob

        so they said
        and you believed

        • dogtato

          Google has been demonstrating this sort of technology for years. There’s no reason to be so paranoid about whether it works. I’m still pretty sceptical on how well it will work for peripherals, but for just the headset it seems like inside-out tracking is approaching lighthouse-quality faster than expected.

          • Jim Cherry

            agreed inside out tracking is being evaluated by several companies now. i feel the only reason vive and oculus are outside in is cause in 2014 inside out was alot worse then outside in. and on that note does anyone else feel like outside in hasnt progressed much in those 2 years.

          • beestee

            Inside-out tracking in an HMD is only commercially available in the HoloLens so far, no? And I believe the HoloLens has more sensors and even an IR projector that these newer inside-out HMDs do not have.

            These new HMDs are the next step of progress, even this demonstration was performed on hardware that is over a year old.

            I don’t see why advancements from one wouldn’t apply to the other as applicable.

          • Sponge Bob

            WHaat ???

            Try NoloVR

        • Andrew Jakobs

          Well, I’d believe them over you as you haven’t used and seen the actual YEAR OLD prototype, so current prototypes will be much better.. Because Inside out tracking didn’t really work well in the past, doesn’t mean it won’t work now with newer technology.. I even think inside out tracking will eventually supersede tech like lighthouse.

          • Sponge Bob

            lighthouse is precise to 2 mm at 10-15 ft

            try to get some numbers for this inside-out thing – they won’t give it to you. lol

    • M. Akhras

      “it has to map its entire environment BEFORE first use”

      Stop making a fool out of yourself and read the article before you blurt out your negativity.

  • Sponge Bob

    try it in a big domed shaped hall with white ceiling and walls
    see what comes out

    • Ian Shook

      Try reading a book with no lights on. Try driving your car on a lake. Try eating soup with a fork. Your comments are moronic.

      • Jim Cherry

        I wouldnt call them moronic more like hyperbole

      • Sponge Bob

        my walls are painted in one color, no pictures, big spaces

        I want actual accuracy figures in mm, not some marketing bs

    • beestee

      I wonder if one could use ‘totems’ in a case where tracking might be difficult with the pre-existing environment. Such as if you were carrying a bag of some sort and just set it out in front of your impromptu play area, and then the sensors could use that new static object for tracking.

  • Justos

    Sounds very impressive. I wonder how they will handle guardian bounds with this type of tracking. If the tracking is rock solid then I may pick one of these up. Also how it does outdoors? Supposedly well since their advertisement had the user outside

    excited for the future of standalone VR.

    • Jim Cherry

      dont believe advertisements even if they are on tv for a product you can go buy now in stores.

    • Gerald Terveen

      The Microsoft tracking uses a similar approach and they do not give you a fixed guardian but instead put you into a point cloud like representation of the real world in 3D. Seems like a sensible approach to me to use with these as well.

  • I think the VR Headset market is going to get rather busy. Great news for us consumers. With Vive/Rift being the only two high-end sets that have dominated so far we need more choices in the middle to high end market to bring overall costs down.

  • Albert Hartman

    did they say what the frames per second would be?

  • VRgameDevGirl

    This is fantastic! I have vive and try to tell people how cool it is and now I’ll just bring this along and SHOW them! GearVR just doesn’t do VR justice without positional tracking.

    • Mike

      Positional tracking is coming to GearVR also.

      • Towfiq I.

        Source?

  • craylon

    I was wondering why there is no info as to lenses, godrays, screen door effect or resolution. Is it because the 2 yo display will be replaced at launch and the prototype is mainly to showcase tracking?
    For me the tracking is important but the visual quality is key for me.

  • I’m just gonna go ahead and leave this here… https://streamable.com/ytab9

    • JMB

      What HMD is this?

  • Roger Anthony Essig

    the word ‘one’ is missing from this sentence. ” …To see how well the tracking could keep up, I tried covering of the two cameras on the front.”

  • GammaSmasher71

    Times, they are a’changin.

  • Gerald Terveen

    “I tried covering of the two cameras on the front,” – think you forget a “one” there.

    And otherwise love to read this, makes it sound like a very solid approach. What did they say about the two other modules of the Qualcomm reference design? The SMI eye tracking seems to be no brainer given the low cost implementation and immense benefits. And I wouldn’t mind a Leap Motion module either.

    They might be optional … but at least the eye tracking really shouldn’t be optional imo.

  • Lucidfeuer

    I changed my mind: this could’ve worked, not for consumers but professionals. But not at this price, buying several headsets is way too expensive to be marketable.

    • WyrdestGeek

      You mean for someone who already has a Rift or a Vive?

      Yeah, they might (understandably) not want to spend oodles more to get one of these.

      However, *I* have so far only been able to purchase kinda crappy Gear VR as I cannot justify the expense of a high end PC to run it on, and I would have serious difficulties keeping the play area clear of small children and pets. Plus I’m not big on the idea of being tethered from my head to some extremely expensive piece of hardware.

      So I’m doing a lot of hoping that this standalone Vive with positional tracking doesn’t suck.

  • Wow, a review from a person that has been able to try the device is super informative! The ability to use only one camera is stunning, I would like to try it!

  • isn’t this like the demo shown from Qualcomm standalonve VR headset from MWC?