Google's Daydream View serves as the gateway into Google's mobile VR platform, Daydream. The viewer itself, though, is what has received the lion's share of attention thus far, likely owing to our fascination with its genuinely charming design and unique wireless controller (well, unique-ish). It is, I wager, all but impossible not to love the fabric-wrapped, gentle curves and elegantly blended material aesthetic of the View headset. I hope Google wins some kind of award for it, because they deserve one - the Daydream View is Google industrial design at its most endearing. But enough about the way it looks: what's it do?
Well, if you've used Google Cardboard, you have a pretty good idea. Now, Daydream is a separate ecosystem and experience, and Cardboard apps don't work in the Daydream app typically (I assume this will change as Cardboard apps add Daydream support). In fact, Daydream View isn't even a functional Cardboard viewer right now because it has no external button and the remote doesn't work with the Cardboard app (again, this may change, I just don't know). What you get with Daydream, for now, is a small selection of apps - maybe a dozen as I write this review - and a special VR launcher. The apps I looked at for the purpose of this review are:
- YouTube VR
- Google Street View
- Google Arts & Culture VR
- Guardian VR
- CNN VR
- The Turning Forest
- Mekorama VR
- Fantastic Beasts
- Wall Street Journal VR
- Hunters Gate
The list of apps will, of course, grow substantially over the next few weeks and months. You'll notice that a number of apps Google demonstrated or announced as part of Daydream in October aren't here yet (like Hulu and Netflix), and at this time I can't say when they will be.
Of those apps available during my testing, three are games - Mekorama, Hunters Gate, and Wonderglade. None of them are, to be blunt, much beyond a pleasant distraction. The rest of the apps are "interactive experiences" ranging from 360-degree video (YouTube) to VR storytelling (Fantastic Beasts, The Turning Forest), and even a VR live stock ticker (Wall Street Journal).
Setup is simple, just pop your phone into the View and it knows what to do (I think via NFC). The remote pairing process is pretty painless, too - you just hold down the home button until the app says you're pairing, and you're off to the races. Once you're set up, you get an interactive tutorial to show you how to use the three-button (plus volume rocker) remote, and then you're dropped into the Daydream launcher to explore. So, is any of the above worth exploring?
Some, like the Guardian's virtual solitary confinement experience (morbid, I know) or the BBC's lighthearted The Turning Forest, are genuinely interesting... once. This is the trouble, I suppose: even if the amount of VR content available for Daydream available out of the gate were two, three, or even five times what it is now, you'd still be able to tear through it all in a matter of days. Most of the content is not worth re-viewing (unless to show it to someone else), and while YouTube is full of 360-degree video, it's still a tiny part of the overall catalog. To put it another way: while there may be tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands?) of 360 videos on YouTube, the quality and categories of the content varies wildly, making discovery of the "good stuff" outside what YouTube decides to feature somewhat difficult. You probably don't subscribe to a channel that regularly uploads 360 degree content, and there really aren't many of them out there.
For example, I tried to watch a Tastemade cooking video that Google promotes on the Daydream launcher. But the video was clearly shot using inferior 360-degree camera equipment (probably at 1080p, not 4K) and so the scrambled eggs looked like a big pile of yellow, the chopped bacon became anonymous red-brown shapes, and the avocado was some sort of amorphous green blob. I couldn't even really make out the faces of the hosts during many scenes - it wasn't worth watching, honestly.
This isn't Google's fault, and it's not a problem unique to Daydream, but it is a problem with the idea of casual VR. Who is going to sit down and watch a 3-minute breakfast avocado tortilla video when it looks like crap? Why? Unless you're tasked with reviewing a VR headset, you probably won't. And unfortunately, so much of the 360-degree video content out there really doesn't look all that great, but it's very hard to determine that when you're just browsing through videos. Some looks amazing, like a 4K elephant encounter video featured in the YouTube VR app. But a lot, is, you know: avocado blobs. Or motion sickness.
The same goes for the quality of the various experiences. The Wall Street Journal's various 360-degree videos looked interesting, but they constantly buffered and froze up on me. The official Fantastic Beasts VR experience app is probably a fun one for Harry Potter fans, but it had agonizing load times and regularly caused the Bluetooth controller to wig out. The Turning Forest was brilliant, but performance hiccups suck you out of the immersion every time the app stutters and chokes. With Cardboard, Google sidestepped this conversation more easily: Cardboard was about "bite-sized" VR experiences, the sort of thing you'd use for two, five, maybe ten minutes at a go. With Daydream, Google is anticipating your headset time will go up, maybe to 30 or 60 minutes a session, but I just don't think there's a remotely compelling reason to wear the View for anything nearing that amount of time right now.
Talking about VR content for mobile at this stage is bound to be a bit depressing. There just isn't much out there, and of what is, there is even littler yet that is enjoyable beyond the sake of its own novelty. While gaming is supposedly a major facet of any VR experience, I found the three titles Google has made available for Daydream thus far are at best briefly entertaining, and at worst (the $6 Hunters Gate comes to mind) just not very good.
On the subject of games, let's discuss the controller. I love it - when it works. I've had finicky behavior with Google's remote the entire time I've been testing, and it seems especially bad in certain apps like Fantastic Beasts. Eventually, after the remote starts going rogue, it disconnects completely, then eventually reconnects, and then it's fine for a while again. When it is working, though, this is leagues above using a gamepad or Samsung's awkward temple-mounted controls on the Gear VR. The controller uses various sensors to detect movement and direction, and the best way to think of the interaction in Daydream is like the controller is your laser pointer or virtual cursor. There's a large, circular button on tap for affirmative actions, a small button in the middle with a raised '-' on it that is used for back or menu functions, and the home button, which always goes back to the Daydream launcher. It's simple, it's elegant, and when it's doing what it should, it's extremely natural and intuitive. The remote is something Google absolutely got right that I don't think any other mobile VR solution has. It's top notch (again: when it's working).
As to the headset itself, I have a few thoughts; first, it is very comfortable and the headband is easy to adjust (when wearing it). Second, it lets in a surprising amount of outside light, and doesn't really even come close to sealing against my face. Third: if you put a Google Pixel XL (like Google provided) in the viewer, the elastic strap to hold the viewer door in place goes directly on the volume rocker. The strap can accidentally engage the volume key (you cannot flip the phone and insert it buttons toward the ground), which is a real nuisance, though the number of times it happened were few compared to the total number of times I used the headset. Still, this seems like less than well thought-out design on Google's part.
I also noticed the Pixel gets absurdly hot when using the View headset. Like, "ouch, that's hot" hot. I don't think there's a burn risk or anything, but my XL and the XL test unit Google provided for prerelease use both absolutely cooked when using the View, and to an extent that made me slightly worried about the long-term effects on the phone's battery. I realize Google wants to maintain an optimal level of performance in VR, and Gear VR devices certainly get very hot, too, but it's just something to keep in mind.
Field of view with the Pixel XL is adequate, but not great, and I definitely feel that the newest generation of Gear VR (built for the now-deceased Note7, but works with the S7 and S7 edge) provides a better experience in this regard. This could be because Daydream View was built to work with a wider range of smartphones and display sizes, but I'm really not certain. Google has never published an official FOV figure for Daydream View (some estimates say 90 degrees), which is frustrating, because it is one of the most important technical factors in creating a sense of virtual immersion (VRHeads has a great explainer here). The more the world "surrounds" your field of view, the more it feels like you're in that virtual world. I do get that immersion sometimes with Daydream View, but the effect is noticeably less convincing. Compared to dedicated VR hardware like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the difference is staggering, and this remains one of mobile VR's biggest pitfalls.
My larger opinions on Daydream View and the Daydream ecosystem right now are mixed. I don't know how much more content will come to Daydream in the next weeks and months, but I bet it will be substantial. It's whether that interest from content developers will die down quickly that is the real issue. So while I wouldn't call the content situation on Daydream dire, it's one that's hinged upon the idea that engaging, thoughtful, and entertaining mobile VR content (versus desktop-class VR or console VR) is something people really want to consume, and that content creators have an incentive to make. Aside from 360-degree video, I'm not sold on that vision just yet. The limited processing power on smartphones and the lack of mobile technology to emulate things like Vive's room-scale tech (the ability to walk around in real life to virtually move) mean mobile VR is an inherently more restrictive experience. Google's remote adds more freedom and interaction to mobile VR that competitors like Gear VR sorely needed, but I'm not sure that remote is going to suddenly jumpstart the mobile VR revolution. It's just a step in the right direction - not a game-changer.
As for the View itself, I think Google did a pretty solid job. While the field of view isn't exactly optimal, exceptional comfort and ease of use, coupled with Google's ingenious remote, make Daydream more approachable and, frankly, engaging than Cardboard or Gear VR did. I think Google has a strong vision about VR and its importance as an emerging technology, but I also think that the capabilities and realities of smartphones impose limitations on that vision, at least for now.
If you got a Daydream View for free, it's absolutely worth playing around with. Your kids might even find it genuinely enthralling. If you're wondering if the $79 is worth dropping just to see what the fuss is versus Cardboard? I'd hold on to your money for now. Let the content flesh out, and let Google work out some of the bugs. Or maybe wait for a third-party headset - possibly one with a wider field of view. And finally, if you're a VR enthusiast with something like Vive, Rift, or PSVR, you can continue safely assuming that mobile VR isn't much closer to catching up to those sorts of experiences.