Google’s new phone-based headset is a comfortable, affordable way to immerse yourself in virtual reality.
Google really wants to make virtual reality A Thing — even with regular nongaming folk — and the company hopes that its new affordable, smartphone-based VR headset, Daydream View, will do just that.
Daydream View, which begins shipping on Nov. 10 for $80, is a fabric-covered virtual reality headset that requires a Daydream View–ready smartphone. Right now, the only Daydream-compatible devices are the Pixel and Pixel XL, the Google-branded Android smartphones launched in October.
I’ve spent nearly a week with a Daydream View review unit and a Pixel running Daydream software. After visiting virtual museums, pseudo-skydiving, exploring far-flung planets, and hunting demon overlords, I think that the View is a great introduction to VR and what it’s capable of, but its success is contingent on whether or not more content will come to it.
While Daydream is not nearly as immersive as premium hardware like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, the headset goes beyond what other phone-based VR experiences can offer, thanks to one killer feature: its handheld controller, with which one can tilt, swivel, and move around in their virtual world.
It’s a good start, but like other VR experiences, it’s lonely in Daydreamlandia. There isn’t a ton of stuff available yet, so it gets boring fast.
Google is no stranger to phone-based, alternative-material VR headsets.
View is not the company’s first VR product — that’s Cardboard, a $15 viewer made quite literally of cardboard — but it is their first VR hardware that’s built to last and runs its own platform, Daydream.
Daydream View elevates the Cardboard experience in many ways. It’s more comfortable, it doesn’t need to be held up with your hands, and, most importantly, it has a controller that makes the platform infinitely more interactive.
But View is also limiting in other ways. Cardboard is compatible with both iOS and Android, while View requires the Daydream app, which is only compatible with devices running Android 7.0 and up.
Wearing the Daydream View feels a bit like wearing ski goggles covered in sweatpants.
Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News, Jess Misener / BuzzFeed
The look and feel of the product is its most obvious difference from other headsets. The View is covered in a luxurious worn-in T-shirt–type fabric on the outside. The headset itself is soft enough to bend when you squeeze it. It’s lighter and more comfortable to wear than the hard, black plastic that covers most VR headsets, but it does leave a substantial forehead mark.
On the inside, there’s a cushy foam and microfiber face piece. Because your face can get pretty…shweaty…the piece is removable and machine washable (thank god).
The head strap is made of a thick, adjustable elastic that’s familiar to anyone who’s put on ski goggles.
Because the eye pocket is roomy, Daydream View is very glasses-friendly (perhaps because Google’s head of VR, Clay Bavor, wears them). Most other viewers do not accommodate glasses. PlayStation VR is actually pretty good for four-eyed friends, but the Gear VR, Oculus, and Vive are not.
Setting up a phone to work with Daydream is insanely easy.
Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News
At the front of the mask is a slot for Daydream-ready phones that, for now, mean just the Pixel and Pixel XL. The front flap of the mask is attached with a little bungee cord and swings open when released. When not in use, there’s a small cradle to store the controller in the front flap.
The phone can be plopped into the View in any which way. The hinges at the bottom of the mask adjust to various thicknesses to accommodate phones of different sizes and devices with cases.
It is not readily apparent, but there’s some technology hidden in the View. An embedded NFC (near field communication) chip communicates with the phone, which will go straight into VR mode when it’s placed on the flap. Two capacitive sensors tell the phone where the lenses are and adjust the display, so you don’t to fudge with aligning it in any particular way.
The experience of using Daydream View isn’t transformative, but the virtual world Google has created is charming and fun.
Two apps I tried stood out. The first is one called Star Chart VR. In the app, you’re not looking up at the stars, you’re floating among them in space, in what I imagine to be some type of solo spacecraft. The controller acts as both the steering wheel and information system.
You can point at distant planets or solar systems with your controller, which emits a laser pointer–esque light. The names of the planets expand as you point in their direction. You can then click in to navigate to, for example, Neptune, billions of miles of away.
Virtual reality really gives you a sense of the scale of space that no other medium can.
The other is a casual game, called Mekorama, animated in the style of Minecraft. It’s a puzzle game similar to Monument Valley, where you must guide a character to a portal to the next level by moving through a maze of moving blocks and staircases.
The precision of the controller was impressive. I could rotate the puzzle to view it from different angles and adjust the position of blocks to help my little robot escape, using that wand you see here. It works precisely because it wasn’t as nausea-inducing as some of the faster-paced games, like the demon-chasing Hunters Gate.
The controller is responding to directional rather than spatial movements, unlike the HTC Vive controllers or Oculus Touch, which means that it’s easiest to control it by resting your arm on a table or armrest and flicking your wrist.
The Daydream app’s “Welcome” tutorial, which shows first-time users how the controller and headset work, is full of whimsy.
It was maybe one of my favorite Daydream experiences.
The walk-through drops you into an idyllic forest, with a waterfall in the distance that feeds into a lazy, winding creek in the foreground. It prompts you to turn on your “flashlight,” or your controller. To turn it on, you must click the touchpad showing that you can, indeed, click it. As you turn your head, a porcupine in a cave, a curious raccoon behind a rock, a deer among the trees, and a croaking frog reveal themselves. It’s all very charming and cute.
The blocky, geometric animated style Google has adopted for its own VR apps works well in Daydream. It masks some of the issues with a lower-resolution screen.
The Pixel XL I tested has a 1440 × 2560 display with 534 PPI pixel density, about the same as what you’d get Samsung’s Gear VR, which is also phone based. That resolution is just fine for a phone, but when it’s inches from your face, the display’s individual pixels are visible and text or visuals don’t appear as sharp as they would on a super-HD, 4K television for example.
Google has Daydream-ified many of its existing apps using the same artistic style.
The Google Play Movie store is set in a sun-drenched home with a giant skylight overhead and mementos behind you, including Indiana Jones’ whip and hat, Marilyn Monroe’s white dress, and Gryffindor robes affixed to the wall. The movie player projects your purchased movie in a giant outdoor theater. There are string lights adorning the branches of a magnificent sprawling tree above you, whose trunk is home to a small cave, dressed with comfy floor pillows for pretend sitting.
The app I want to absolutely want to live in is Google Photos for VR. Here, you re-live memories from your photo library outside, in the shade of a modern, minimalist home. To the right, there are two hanging plants and the stem of single cut-leaf philodendron in an elegant vase, plucked right from a Pinterest dream. To the left is a truly epic Machu Picchu–esque mountain range. And behind is a wall-mounted vertical garden packed with succulents that’s so tall, there’s a bookshelf ladder to reach the top-most plants.
It’s gorgeous. It’s one of the most blissful, beautifully designed environments I have ever witnessed with my own two eyes. I loved looking around at the details and enjoying the sights and sounds of Google’s virtual paradise.
But one thing was absolutely clear: I was all on my own.
And while that may be a welcome respite for some, it’s kind of like enjoying the beauty and grandeur of a natural wonder like Yosemite, without anyone to share it with.
This, of course, is true of almost all of VR. The medium is not typically designed to be a shared experience, and this may be what prevents virtual reality as a platform to truly appeal to a mass market audience, at least at first.
The View is something that’s meant to be enjoyed while stationary and inside, seated in a comfortable office chair. Alone.
The eye fatigue is real.
I downloaded the Pixar film Sanjay’s Super Team in Daydream. After about 20 minutes, I felt like the screen was burning holes into my eyeballs. It may be because my eyes are messed up (others who tried the headset didn’t feel eye fatigue until 30 or 40 minutes in). But even those with perfect 20/20 vision will want to take a break from this thing. It’s better for short bursts of entertainment, versus two-hour-long superhero movies.
The YouTube VR app was especially dizzying. I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t look at a screen for a while.
Plus, the phone got insanely hot. I got a notification that it was overheating and needed to be shut down after a half-hour of VR play.
Ultimately, I think Daydream View is a welcome addition to the sea of current black plastic VR headsets.
The team really hit a home run with the hardware. It’s much less intimidating than the computer-based VR headsets that have wires, confusing software, and just ~look~ mean. It’s damn comfortable, too. If it didn’t make me so dizzy, I’d wear it for hours on end.
I am not a “VR person” and I think other people, who may not be “into” VR or don’t consider themselves tech-savvy, will find Daydream compelling. It offers a little bit of something for everyone. Right now, in the platform’s earliest stage, there are demon-hunting games, educational science apps, transportive Street View experiences, and even vertical gardens for succulent fiends. There’s a lot more charm in Daydream than other VR offerings.
It’ll surprise and delight you at every turn, but even Google’s whimsically designed apps get boring fast. The platform’s success or failure will really come down to whether Google can convince developers to create engaging content (and lots of it). If you already have a Pixel and are interested in VR, I’d suggest waiting for more applications to arrive on the Daydream platform. There aren’t a lot of offerings right now, but I do think they’ll come eventually.
The bottom line: Daydream is a fun, simple way to temporarily escape from reality for under 100 bucks (not including, of course, the phone) – and maybe we can all use a little bit of that right now.
It’s available on the Made by Google online store and Verizon retail locations.