The best things about the Daydream View, Google’s $79 mobile-driven virtual reality headset that comes out today, are what it isn’t: Complicated. Heavy. Expensive. Finicky. Most importantly of all, though, it’s not Cardboard. Google knows for Daydream to take off, the VR platform has to be as simple as as the assemble-it-yourself cheapo phone holster that’s brought so many people into immersive virtual worlds for the first time—just better. Much better.
Much like the Google Pixel phone that powers it, the View is almost entirely featureless. Very unlike the Pixel, though—and unlike every other VR headset out there—the View manages to look and feel cozy. The eyebox is an uninterrupted swatch of soft heathered material. When you slip it over your head, a single wide fabric strap keeps everything secure, and a padded liner lets the headset rest snugly on your face without leaving pressure marks. The liner can even be removed and hand-washed—which, seriously, you may want to consider doing every now and then. Your T-zone will thank you.
Google Daydream View
Comfortable for long spells. Feels good to the touch. Fast, responsive tracking—especially impressive after Cardboard’s disappointing performance. A versatile controller that enhances every experience.
Unreliable NFC pairing. A launch slate that’s overreliant on Google’s own apps.
Flip down the faceplate, place your Pixel on the four contact points, and the View should recognize it immediately via NFC and prompt you to close the lid. “Should” being the operative word. If I’d recently restarted the phone, all happened as expected, but many times I needed to explicitly launch a VR app just to receive the prompt to place my Pixel in the View—and sometimes I got no prompt at all, leading to a frustrating game of Home Screen Bingo to see what would trigger the launch sequence.
Once things start running, though, and the View is on your head, it (with a little help from you) pairs with the headset’s not-so-secret weapon: the companion controller. As my colleague David has already pointed out, the small pillbox-shaped device functions like a cross between the Apple TV’s remote and a Wiimote, though VR fans will find the Oculus Rift’s remote the handiest comparison. Yet, it’s an improvement on all of those, as well as handily eclipsing the touchpad-on-the-side-of-the-headset input scheme of the Samsung Gear VR, the View’s nearest competitor. It’s your all-in-one Daydream input device, taking various forms depending on what you’re doing. Because it’s motion-tracked, it act as a laser pointer, an aiming reticle, a flashlight, a wand, or just about anything you need it to be. Its buttons bring up in-game options or kick you back to an app-selection screen; a round area near the top for your thumb can function as a joystick, a rotary selector, or a swipe-able touchpad. It’s versatile, powerful, and while the pairing dropped a handful times during my testing, it enhances everything you do in Daydream.
The first place you’ll use it is in Daydream’s pastoral home environment, a forest clearing with a waterfall to your right and a stream flowing nearby. In front of you hovers the same tiled selection of apps that has emerged as VR’s default UI. (Passing your controller’s selector over the icons in Daydream, though, triggers a nifty 3D animation.) Our review unit included a small selection of titles, from Google’s own products like Street View and YouTube VR to third-party games and experiences: astronomy exploration tool Star Chart is a standout, as is cute if inconsequential puzzle game Mekorama.
The good news is that the vast majority of these are flawlessly comfortable experiences. The View might be significantly more wearable than a Google Cardboard viewer, but it’s still essentially the same thing: a phone holster with some lenses in it. There’s no focus wheel, no interpupillary distance adjustment—no input whatsoever. While the Samsung Gear VR has some onboard motion sensors and establishes a hard connection with the phone via its mini-USB jack, the View eschews all that, instead relying solely on the Pixel’s (and controller’s) internal sensors for all tracking. And it does so surprisingly well.
My only brush with VR discomfort was in a mini-game collection called Wonderglade: something about the top-down view and the game’s detached camera control came together in unholy matrimony and turned what should have been a pleasant game of minigolf into a headache I’ve come to know as a precursor to simulator sickness. That’s the fault of the game design, though, not Daydream’s tracking. (By contrast, I found action-RPG Hunters Gate to be perfectly comfortable, despite needing to use my thumb and my controller in different ways—and looking around at my surroundings while doing both.)
For all the good, keep in mind that this is still mobile VR. You can swivel in a chair or look up and down, but you can’t physically move through a virtual space. Fully positionally-tracked VR isn’t yet available in a standalone or mobile-driven headset; for now, if you want to be cable-free or avoid buying a PC or PlayStation 4 (and the multi-hundred-dollar headset to go with it), you’re looking at a somewhat constrained VR experience.
But for a constrained VR experience, this is as good as I’ve seen. A Pixel XL’s Quad HD OLED screen delivers an image as good as you’ll get using a Galaxy phone with the Gear VR, and Google has done a lot of work to optimize the phone to deliver great VR. If you’re not a Verizon customer, you’ll need to wait until there’s a Daydream-ready phone on your own carrier, but that won’t be a long wait: as Google announced in May, at least eight different Android manufacturers, from Asus to Xiaomi, will be rolling out Daydream-capable phones. (There’ll even be other Daydream headsets eventually.)
Daydream also has the benefit of coming nearly two years after the Oculus Store first launched. The VR pipeline is robust, and growing all the time. There are more than 40 other games, experiences and apps arriving on Daydream over the next two months, While many of those are already staples of most other VR platforms (Netflix, NYT VR, cartoonish racer VR Karts, the bomb-defusing game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes), a healthy number of them are newcomers. That infusion of talent is integral to people not just buying in, but using VR.
When Google first surprised us with its Cardboard viewer, it was 2014: the first version of the Samsung Gear VR was still months away. Simply by representing an affordable buy-in, Cardboard spawned a seemingly endless parade of cheap and easy (and, sure, mostly crappy) phone-based headsets. Google knew that the quality would come; it just wanted people to be willing to try VR. Now it’s got them there—and it’s giving them a better View.