Android N takes baby steps toward becoming a virtual reality platform

The second Android N Developer Preview came out this week, and while it brings support for Vulkan, new emojis, and a few UI tweaks, there are also a few references to virtual reality buried inside the new update.

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. We're also not sure how comprehensive this "Virtual Reality Mode" is.

Right now Google's VR products consist only of the Google Cardboard app, but we've long heard rumors of Google expanding that into a large VR push. Google is rumored to be working on both a smartphone-powered Gear VR-style headset and a standalone VR headset. The Wall Street Journal has also said Google is working on "a version of the Android operating system to power virtual-reality applications." With this helper service we could be seeing the first of that VR integration work.

The Android N framework also has a new hardware support flag called "config_sustainedPerformanceModeSupported." "Sustained performance" is something smartphone SoCs are very bad at today. Mobile chips are mainly designed for 2D app usage, so they're great at spinning up quickly, loading an app or webpage, and quickly going back to sleep to save power. If you push the CPU and GPU for an extended period of time, you'll quickly hit the chip's thermal limit, and the SoC will start to throttle. The first Gear VR couldn't handle extended usage and would actually boot the user out of VR mode when it got too hot. A "Sustained performance mode" sounds like it would change the SoC's performance mode from a sprinter to a marathon runner, which could benefit gaming and virtual reality.

With Google Cardboard, the Samsung Gear VR, and Project Tango all running virtual reality or augmented reality programs on top of Android, it makes sense for Google to embrace this Android use case with official API support, but rumors from The Wall Street Journal, The Information, and The Financial Times would all put this on the map as part of a bigger push into virtual reality.

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