Like many of you, I first heard of Google’s Daydream platform — then rumored to be called Android VR — back at Google I/O 2016. I had hope that Google would pull an actual VR headset out of a hat at its annual developer conference, but, unsurprisingly, that didn’t happen. I felt a bit let down when I learned that the company was rather going to double-down on Cardboard.
It seemed like a good idea in theory, but I was skeptical. Would smartphone-in-a-headset ever be a good enough experience for people to use VR for any longer than 10 minutes? Can phones handle captivating VR experiences? I’m still not completely sure, but having now spent a week with Daydream, I feel for now that the answer is going to be yes and no.
Ready to try the Pixelbook?
The Mountain View company’s Daydream View headset is just the first headset that’s available for the platform. Google hopes that this thing will get traction, and that other OEMs will buy in and make more headsets, but for now it’s your only option for Daydream games and apps. It’s a nice option, however, designed to be more casual — Google says it designed it like an article of clothing — and less like some kind of futuristic cyborg headset. In that goal, Google succeeded greatly. I have yet to find a VR headset that I would be more comfortable just strapping on in public.
I had my first experience with Daydream at Google’s October 4th event last month in San Francisco. The Daydream headset was one of the few things that didn’t leak in the months leading up the event, so the details of its actual physical appearance were a bit of a surprise. But the general form factor — that it would be a nicer version of Cardboard with a single strap and a wireless controller paired with some new software — was already known in advance.
The not-so-good |
I strapped the headset on in what just-so-happened to be the darkest corner of the event space. It was upstairs in an area set apart from the rest of the event, and Google had some chairs set up that conveniently let you spin around like we’ve seen at I/O in years past. I didn’t really know why it was so dark at first, but I understood as soon as I got my own review unit in the mail last week.
When I strapped on the headset, I realized that the sides don’t exactly close off completely. It depends on the lighting in the room and which direction it’s coming from, but I immediately noticed some glare on the lenses on the inside that only went away if I turned off the lights in the room (or at least made them much more dim). It is most noticeable on the black set up screens that sometimes appear — like when you’re syncing the controller — but, thankfully, when you’re deep in a game or a video and your screen is bright, it’s obviously a bit harder to see the bright glare on the lenses.
I don’t really understand these gaps on the left and right sides of the viewer. If Google had designed the headset with them curved in just a bit, this wouldn’t be a problem at all. Perhaps Google left them open to cater to those using the headset with glasses, which Google boldly claims should work perfectly fine with the headset. I don’t wear glasses, but my wife does, and she confirmed to me that she didn’t really have any problems with comfort. If anything, it was the glare that she noticed.
Screen resolutions and nausea
But that’s only where the complaints begin. My biggest problem with Daydream has nothing to do with the headset itself, but rather I think the state of smartphone display resolutions. Daydream requires that your phone has at least a 1080p display to be dubbed “Daydream ready,” and I’m hoping that that’s just the bare minimum going forward. Just like you can with Cardboard, viewing your phone’s display at 1-inch distance isn’t exactly comfortable at times. Even with the Google Pixel XL, I can see pixels just fine in Daydream in most apps and games. And that’s both a killer of immersion (something you’ll be familiar with from Cardboard), and brings what is personally my biggest problem.
I didn’t notice this with Cardboard (probably because I would hop into an app and use the viewer for a max of 10 minutes), but I’ve found that I get nauseous with Daydream. Daydream has a strap and is super comfortable, and it’s way easier to just put it on your head and get lost in VR, which means it’s really easy to use the Daydream app to navigate between apps and games and accidentally spend an hour or more in a different world. But I had a really hard time with this. Having used the Daydream View for a week now, I consistently get nauseous after using the headset for about 20 or 30 minutes. I suspect that this might have something to do with the resolution of the Pixel XL’s display, since I’ve not noticed the nausea as much — if at all — when using other devices like the HTC Vive or PlayStation VR.
Maybe it’s something that I’ll “grow out of,” but in my week of using the device, I’m not too optimistic. Maybe this is just me, though, and maybe it will be resolved when Daydream-ready phones with 4K displays are available.
The good |
The good news for you, reader, is threefold: I know plenty of people that have absolutely no problems with phone-based VR, phones are getting higher resolution screens, and half an hour is plenty of time for a lot of the things Daydream can do right now. Watching YouTube videos in 360 degrees in the YouTube app. Playing quick games like Mekorama or Fantastic Beasts. Exploring some artwork in Google Arts & Culture. None of these tasks are demanding like playing Portal or using Tilt Brush on the HTC Vive. They’re easily the kind of things that are pick-up-and-play.
For the thirty-or-so minutes that I am able to use the Daydream headset, I really do enjoy it. I think it might be the best entry point into VR that you can buy today. It’s a whole new experience, and I think this one might win some more “normal” people over. I was pleasantly surprised by how accurate the wireless controller is. I still really enjoy navigating my way around the Daydream app and switching between different VR apps using the remote. It’s great — it reminds me a lot of using a more accurate version of the Wii Remote — and it just feels natural. Playing games with it works really well. Which brings us to the controller…
The controller is really what I believe makes this Daydream headset worth going for. Google did a really good job communicating to its initial developers how the controller should be used. Controlling and playing the various games was just natural. Hunter’s Gate, for example, has you using the touch pad to walk around, while simultaneously using the controller to aim and shoot at enemies. It feels a little awkward when you’re first starting off. But what’s great about the controller is that, in all the different games and apps I tried, it became natural quickly. Your grandma can learn to use this controller.
But beyond that, I just can’t explain to you how much fun this thing is to use — and I don’t think the novelty is going to wear off nearly as quickly as Cardboard did. With this controller, third-parties can build actual games for Daydream, and I think the early examples showcase this well. Fantastic Beasts didn’t come out until just yesterday, but I installed it, gave my wife this headset (she’s a huge Harry Potter fan), and she got completely lost in another world for half an hour. She used the controller to cast spells. I can’t really overstate how magical this controller feels, especially when the next-best-thing is super-expensive.
There are just a few buttons on the bundled remote. You have the volume buttons on the side that, obviously, change the volume. You also have the touch sensitive area at the top of the remote, an app button (basically used for pulling up menus), and a home button. This gives you a lot of control options, but you’ll find yourself using the touch pad and the button when clicking it down the buttons you use most often. You’ll also use the home button, which has two primary functions. You can tap and hold to re-center the screen, and you can just press it to go back to the Daydream menu from within an app.
When you first open up the Daydream app, you’ll be walked through a setup process and made familiar with the controller. You’ll eventually end up at what is effectively a VR home screen, from which you can launch into some suggested apps and content and a collection of five apps. I’m not quite sure how the app determines which of your apps end up on the home screen (it seems like it’s based on the apps you’ve used most recently), but you can’t manually change it. There are three buttons at the bottom, though, including a shortcut to the Daydream-friendly Play Store, a full gallery of all your apps, and settings.
You navigate between these menus by swiping left and right on the touch pad and pointing your remote at your selection, and it’s a lot of fun to do. Google’s own apps like YouTube, Arts & Culture, Play Movies and TV, Street View, and Photos are all equally as visually appealing and easy to use. Let’s touch on a couple of those really quick.
- YouTube: One of my favorite Daydream experiences is the YouTube app, which makes the mundane activity of watching YouTube videos a truly immersive and cinematic experience. Even videos that aren’t 360 degrees are fun to watch, because you feel like you’re in a movie theater and you can quickly adjust the size of your screen. It’s just a lot of fun, especially when watching videos that are more action-y like cinematic extreme sports clips and GoPro footage. Watching 360 degree videos is a lot of fun, too, but I almost prefer the standard videos because it takes a lot of work to constantly move your head in circles.
- Street View: Street View is another Google-made app which takes advantage of the unique abilities of the remote control. With the remote in hand, it’s really easy to pick a destination like the Taj Mahal and click around the different spots in all directions to take a virtual tour around your favorite destinations.
- Others: I also spent time in Mekorama, Hunter’s Gate, and Wonderglade. There are a lot more games and apps to come, but all of these take advantage of Daydream beautifully. Mekorama lets you use the controller to manipulate a model and move your character around, Hunter’s Gate, as I mentioned, uses the touch pad to navigate a map and shoot enemies, and Wonderglade has mini games that take advantage of things like the accelerometer in the controller.
In summary, the experiences that Google bundled with Daydream out of the box do a great job of showcasing what this platform can be. But it’s just a start, and I can’t wait to see what else comes out in the coming months.
As for the headset itself, I’m really happy with the build quality. It’s a well thought out product, with 10 little rubber nubs that hold your phone in place in the headset with no slippage. The front cover is held on with an elastic band, and Google ingeniously created a little slot for the controller on the inside of the headset when you’re not using it. On top of that, there’s only one strap and it works well. You’ll need to adjust it to fit your head, but once you do, it’s comfy and snug. The materials Google used are perfect.
On top of that, Google has basically perfected the whole process of converting your phone into a VR headset driver. Gear VR makes you plug in your phone and it’s really clunky and sometimes not reliable. Daydream View has you slip your phone into the headset, close the front, and then the NFC tag built into the flap automatically opens up the Daydream app. It works almost every time, and it’s seamless. After you put the headset on, the Daydream app opens, and it asks you to hold the home button your the Daydream controller, which I’ve found works pretty reliably. The controller charges via USB-C.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with what Google has managed to put together for its first real consumer VR product. The controller will catch you by surprise with how accurate and fun it is to use, and this $79 headset really opens up a whole new world of possibilities for people that can’t afford to go all-in with something like the Vive or PlayStation VR. Google holding a tight grip on which phones are good enough to be Daydream compatible is a great thing, and the Pixel is a good start. I have my gripes with display resolution and some light bleed on the sides, but other than that the Daydream headset is just too much fun.
I can’t really sufficiently explain in text what it’s like to use this headset and the apps that Google and third-party developers have made for it. You really need to try it for yourself. And at $79, you’re getting a nice piece of hardware and a great remote in a package that makes phone VR a blast. But the thing with the Daydream View, just like a lot of other products Google has released this fall, is that it’s launching as a barebones experience. There are only some dozen-or-so third-party apps available out of the box, and there are maybe a couple more dozen coming before the end of the year. But the ones that are out now make me hopeful.
Daydream View doesn’t have any super-fancy hardware or high-tech features, but that’s not what makes this a great VR experience. The entire point of the Daydream View is that it offers immersive and interactive VR for the any person. I really do think that the best way to describe this headset is as a natural evolution of Cardboard. Cardboard++, if you will. It takes Cardboard, adds a great VR app, brings a great VR headset that’s physically attractive and comfortable, and introduces a controller for navigating VR apps. All of these improvements, together, I think are worth your $79, and there’s so much potential for this to get even better in the coming months.
Daydream View is available on the Google Store right now for $79 in one color — the gray one — and will soon be landing in two more colors. More details on availability are coming soon.