During the early days of pre-release virtual reality, long before you could buy anything VR-related in a store, those who got private demos with Oculus saw a glimpse of something completely different and exciting – but also something that would prove to be very expensive. Today, if you have the right smartphone, you can get a similar experience for just US$79. Unfortunately for Google and its sleek Daydream View VR headset, right now a glimpse is all you get.
Daydream View is the best-looking and best-feeling VR headset yet. Made mostly out of fabric, it looks more like a piece of clothing than a tech product; appropriate for something you wear on your face. Kudos to Google for thinking outside the box, taking what could have been just another pair of plastic geek-goggles and turning it into something compact, cushy and cute.
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On a practical level, the headset is very comfortable (though comfort hasn't been an issue on any major VR headset we've used), only with straps that are harder to adjust than its most direct rival, the Samsung Gear VR. Instead of Samsung's velcro straps that can easily be tweaked at a moment's notice, Daydream View is adjusted similarly to a dog collar, looping a band through multiple sections. It's not always easy to do on the fly.
I also found that, while wearing Daydream View, light leaks in noticeably from the sides. This isn't a big problem, though: Not only is it not particularly distracting from the virtual world, it also means the headset doesn't have any lens fog problems. On headsets where the seal is tight and light is completely (or nearly) shut out, lenses can fog up like a rear window on prom night.
One handy feature: You can take the phone out of the headset without exiting whatever VR app you're using. On the Gear VR, when you take the phone out, everything resets. If you get it set up only to notice there's some schmutz on the phone's screen or front lenses, you're less likely to throw Daydream View across the room in a fit of rage. Just pull it out, clean and put it back in, without missing a beat.
At launch Daydream View does, however, have two severe limits: phone compatibility and content.
This time next year, I wouldn't be surprised if all major Android flagships were "Daydream Ready," meaning they meet Google's requirements for high-quality mobile VR. But today it's only compatible with two phones, Google's own Pixel and Pixel XL. While these are probably the two best Android phones you can buy, that's also a much shorter list than the six high-quality Samsung Galaxy flagships that work with the Gear VR (a list that briefly included seven phones, until Samsung recalled the fiery Note 7).
As for Daydream's apps and games selection, it's hard to see this as anything but a huge let-down – and perhaps a deal-breaker in the short-term. Right now there's a grand total of 12 Daydream games you can download in the Play Store. In my experience, none of them are must-haves, with "highlights" (a relative term, if ever there was one) including obscure indie titles like Wonder Glade, Mekorama and Danger Goat.
The difference between the Gear VR's and Daydream's libraries is striking: Samsung and Oculus have been filling their app marketplace since late 2014, when the Innovator Edition – a developer headset that was also available to curious consumers – launched. Even if you ignored newer Gear VR content, the gap between Day One Gear VR content (December 2015) and Day One Daydream content (right now) is still enormous.
In other words, Google and the VR developers it's working with have some serious catching up to do.
There is one point of differentiation for Daydream that falls in Google's favor: It includes a small motion controller in the box that's unlike anything we've seen in mobile VR. It has a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope, and lets you point at things in VR, similarly to a Wii controller. There's also a small, circular touchpad: You can either slide your finger on it to act as a sort-of joystick, or click it to serve as an action button. It's a surprisingly versatile controller for such a small form factor.
But don't get too excited about the bundled controller. For starters, without any positional (neck-down) tracking for either headset or controller, there's no depth sensing at all. So while it knows where you're aiming the tip of the controller and how you're tilting it, depth-based gestures like moving your arm around in space (think raising it up or down, forwards and backwards, etc) do nothing. I hesitate to even use the term "motion controller" here, as Google's economic accessory, while nice to have, isn't remotely in the same category as Oculus Touch or the Vive's controllers.
Still, it's something the Gear VR is lacking. The question, then, is which comes first: Samsung and Oculus adding "real" motion controls – closer to Oculus Touch level – to the Gear VR? Or Daydream getting enough quality games to grant its more limited controller any relevance? I wouldn't be shocked if it were the former.
Since the Gear VR launched, we've been saying that anyone who owns a compatible Samsung phone with even a passing interest in VR won't regret spending $99 on the headset. Would we say the same thing about the $79 Daydream View for Google Pixel owners?
That's a tougher call. On one hand, there's that crummy game selection, and even if it ever caught up with the Gear it still wouldn't necessarily provide a better VR experience. But the content library will grow over time and with a total package that's $20 cheaper, including a limited-but-nifty controller in the box, it's a solid novelty purchase for Pixel owners.
Ultimately, though, this is about Google planting seeds for the future. A reactive strategy, along the lines of Google Home as a response to Amazon Echo, or Android to the iPhone. Rival creates buzzy product, Google responds.
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