Google’s latest smartphone, the Pixel 3A, won’t support Daydream, the company’s virtual reality (VR) initiative. And that’s very scary news for any developers who invested in building for the Daydream platform.
Just in case your memory’s a little foggy on Google’s VR efforts, here’s a quick refresher: Back in 2016, Daydream made its debut as part of Android N, the then-current version of Google’s mobile OS. In addition to a developer SDK and a handful of apps, Daydream included a fancy headset (which used an Android smartphone as the “screen”) and a one-handed controller.
In theory, Daydream was going to unleash an entire ecosystem. Developers would build games and productivity apps for VR, and customers would flock to those products just as they did for smartphone apps. By relying on Android phones to deliver the actual VR experience, Google would guarantee itself a ready-made install base.
But somewhere along the way, Google evidently lost faith in the project. Keeping Daydream exclusive to Android phones shut off the huge pool of iOS customers who might have tried out Google’s take on VR. In addition, manufacturers supported Daydream in a piecemeal manner; for example, it only came to Samsung phones more than a year after its initial release.
If Google outright abandons its VR ambitions, that’s very bad news for the developers who thought the company would invest heavily on VR as an up-and-coming technology segment. Indeed, Google gave them every reason to think VR was here to stay: There was the fancy Daydream website, a special Daydream section in the Google Play app store, and phone-free Daydream headsets.
But Google also has an unwelcome habit of murdering projects with little warning. This year alone, the company has whacked Google+ (its once-promising social network), Inbox by Gmail, Fusion Tables, Google Allo, Chromecast Audio, and… the Mr. Jingles notification widget (the Google Cemetery gives a top-level view of all the casualties over the years).
Those developers who’ve invested heavily in VR can always migrate their software to dedicated headsets such as Oculus (which just released the Oculus Quest, priced at $399 and intended for broad adoption). Even so, those headsets remain very much a niche product, targeted mainly at high-end gamers with cash to burn; it’s hard to tell whether lightweight games developed for smartphone-based VR can succeed in that context.
In the meantime, Google has another fading project on its hands. If you’re a developer interested in Daydream, don’t get your hopes up; if Google can’t offer support on its latest flagship phones, what hope does the overall platform have?