If you want to believe the tech pundits, industry gurus, and prognosticators, we’re at the beginning of a new era of computing thanks to virtual reality.
The problem with VR though is that it’s pricey and inaccessible for most. The best headsets cost $600 or more and require a powerful PC to operate, which could set you back at least another $500.
But Google pioneered a radically new way to experience VR with the introduction of Cardboard, a simple headset that you can slot your phone into and experience a sort of diet version of VR. Now the company is taking the cardboard concept a step further with a new phone-powered headset called the Daydream View.
Daydream only works with Google’s new Pixel phones, but the company says more phones from other manufacturers will eventually be compatible too. The headset costs $79, and many will get it for free if they pre-ordered a Pixel from Google last month.
It’s also a different take on the phone-as-a-VR-machine concept, with a design that looks more like something out of an athleisure clothing catalogue than the latest tech gadget. There’s also a clever new wireless controller.
Daydream is an excellent concept, but it’s also hampered by the same problem as most VR devices — there’s simply not a lot of compelling content available to make it a must have. It’s a cool thing to try, and still relatively cheap or free, but we’re clearly in the very, very early days of VR.
Design and comfort
The most unique thing about the Daydream View is its design. Unlike most headsets we’ve seen, Daydream is wrapped in a super-soft fabric so it’s comfortable to wear on your head for extended periods of time, like a cosy pair of sweatpants.
The controller is also a nice touch, something we haven’t seen with cheaper headsets so far. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth and includes motion controls, sort of like the remote on the Nintendo Wii.
The button layout is simple too, so it’s easy to use when you’re immersed in a VR experience and can’t look down. There’s a touch pad at the top for swiping through menus and you can click it to select an item. There are also two buttons at the bottom, including a home button to take you back to the main menu.
I found the controller natural and easy to use, and it’s amazing other headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR force your to awkwardly use a touchpad on the side of the headset instead of a simple external controller like the Daydream remote. It should be standard moving forward.
When you pop your phone into Daydream, it automatically launches the Daydream app, which is your portal to all your VR content. Menus float in front of you, and you use the remote to point and select what you want.
Using the Pixel XL, the picture seemed about as crisp as other similar headsets, but the field of view seemed a bit narrower, meaning there was always a circular black border around everything I saw. It’s not terrible, and first-time VR users probably won’t notice it as much as I did, but it’s hard to feel fully immersed in VR if it still feels like you’re looking through a peephole.
The headset also loses its positioning a lot, so the picture appears off-center if you move around to much. Holding the remote forward and pressing down the home button will re-center everything though.
Like other cheaper headsets, Daydream doesn’t give you a full range of motion. You can rotate your head and look up, down, left, and right, but you can’t physically move forward or backwards, up or down. If you’re new to VR, you won’t really notice this, but a full range of motion you see in more expensive headsets adds a lot to the experience.
Where’s the content?
Right now, there are only about 15 apps in Daydream VR, with about 35 more coming soon.
There are VR versions of popular Google services like YouTube, Google Photos, and Google Street View, along with a handful of third-party games. But none of what I used felt like essential experiences. The games available today are pretty basic and tedious, and you can only look at so much Street View in VR before getting bored.
Google Daydream clearly has a chicken/egg problem. It’s a brand new platform for VR, so almost no one is using it. And because no one is using it, there’s very little content available. It’s going to be hard to get more developers interested in Daydream until more people have it. Luckily, many Pixel owners will be getting it for free, and as more phones come out that work with Daydream, the low $79 price tag might seem worth it.
The Gear VR, which only works with some Samsung phones, has a much better selection of VR content, thanks to its partnership with Facebook’s Oculus. Over the last year or so, Oculus has cultivated the best library of VR content, and its head start in the space has yet to be matched by anyone, even Google.
This is clearly the biggest drawback to Daydream for now. It’s not going to be worth investing in a headset unless there’s great content for you to enjoy.
The Daydream View is a great first step for Google’s VR ambitions, but it feels a little too early to recommend it for everyone. If you’re getting one for free with your Pixel phone, you’ll enjoy it. The controller is clever, and something I’d like to see replicated on all VR headsets. Everyone else will have to wait and buy a new phone from a third-party that’s compatible with Daydream, but it’s unclear when those devices will be available.
For now, Daydream feels more like an experimental concept than a fully-developed product. It’s a decent first attempt from Google, but it’s clear the company’s VR ambitions have a long way to go.