Google I/O 2016 Roundup, Part 2: Virtual Reality, Android Wear 2.0, Instant Apps
At Google I/O we saw how Google is building its next evolution, and two crucial parts of this are Virtual Reality through “Daydream”, and Wearables, with the former opening an entire new dimension for Android.
VR Mode in Android N is official, and this will allow Android to tackle the current players in the VR market, even if it can’t offer all of the same experiences. Google believes phones are powerful enough to show us a new way to see the world and explore content virtually, and it wasn’t until this point that VR was possible across the Android ecosystem. Android N changes the way the OS reads sensor data and how it sends pixels to the display in order to provide accurate, high-quality VR experiences.
The VR mode accomplishes this through changes like single buffer rendering, as opposed to the default double buffering of the GPU. Single buffering skips the intermediate frame buffer and draws the display directly for improved drawing speed. The trade-off is that slowdowns can produce screen-tearing, but Android N’s graphics optimizations like the adoption of the Vulkan API, which allows better usage of the GPU by developers, should be able to maximize performance.
There is also “electronic display stabilization ” to reduce perceived latency, and “access to an exclusive core for VR apps” for developers. Within apps, users and developers will find low-latency graphics, smooth head-tracking, and stereo notifications for a compelling experience. Motion-to-photon latency on the 6P running Developer Preview 3 is less than 20ms, which is necessary for establishing immersion and help with the adverse effects of early VR.
Daydream will bring the apps you’d expect in VR, including Netflix and HBO Now, but also Google’s Street View and Youtube, which has been rebuilt to make the best of VR. Google is also making sure that the experience works as intended by providing specifications to OEMs regarding their phones, so that they can be “Daydream-ready” for a certifiably smooth experience, one of these requirements is that the device must feature an AMOLED display, great news for fans of truly dark blacks. Similar guidelines will apply to headset makers. What we’ve seen of the VR home and store so far looks very similar to the Gear VR, so enthusiasts that have already tested the waters of mobile VR will feel right at home.
Android Wear 2.0
Android Wear 2.0 was also announced at Google I/O, bringing some changes we’ve been wanting for a while. First of all, the biggest change is the introduction of standalone apps. Applications in Android Wear, and the whole OS as well, are now more-independent from the smartphone they are initially paired with. This also means that Android Wear apps will be able to make sure of wi-fi, bluetooth and cellular connectivity in order to deliver better experiences. You will be able to easily use applications that have been impractical before as well, such as video-streaming and browsing, in case you wanted to do those from your watch.
To make general browsing and interactions easier, the UI has gotten a few updates and, most importantly, Google introduced a full keyboard as well as smarter canned responses and intelligent handwriting recognition. Another touted feature is “Complications”, which are watch-face features that display more than hours or meters, and we had seen these partially introduced in the latest update and on some watchfaces.
There are also new widgets, like a revamped navigation drawer and action drawer that give you new ways to interact with the app. You can draw the navigation drawer from the top to navigate between app views, and the action drawer appears at the bottom to choose from a list of actions associated with current usage context. The UI is designed around the watch and will help with better navigation throughout the phone and application interactions. You can get on the Developer Preview here!
Android Instant Apps is an evolution to the way Android has done applications traditionally. Rather than downloading a full-blown application, Instant Apps allows users to “stream” apps to try it out (in reality, it’s a partial code download), without going through the hassle of downloading and installing it. This allows app developers to reach out to an even wider audience, as they can now project a native Android app experience to the end user with something as simple as a URL: click and you’re in the app. Android Pay works within these instances as well, and they can even be triggered with NFC for parking and other services.
What makes Instant Apps good for the developer outside of the increase in app range is that they don’t need to build a whole different app. Devs do need to update their existing Android apps in order to get the advantage of the Instant Apps functionality, but Google promises it to be easy to pick up since it is based on the same Android APIs and the same source code. Developers would need to modularize their app, and then Google Play will only download the relevant bits that the user/viewer needs, on the fly. There’s another very good reason to upgrade to: Android Instant Apps extends all the way back to Android Jellybean, so you aren’t restricted to only a handful of users on the latest Android version.
Google has already worked with a small set of developers to bring the Instant Apps experience, and will be gradually expanding access for developers. You can sign up to request early access over here. Instant Apps is scheduled for user rollout later this year.
Google certainly sees a lot of potential in smart applications outside of the traditional smartphone. This push in Virtual Reality and the newfound independence of the Android Wear smartwatch expands the ways Android affects our lives. Instant apps brings the App experience on the fly at the moment, but the potential is certainly there to bring the Android App experience to all devices.
What are your thoughts on Android VR, Android Wear 2.0 and Instant Apps? Do you see potential in these advancements? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!