Google’s been putting out hardware over the past month like iTunes puts out updates: nearly nonstop. I really like the Google Pixel phone, though thought it unlikely to win over many converts from iOS to Android. Google Home has been cool, though for me it’s more a novelty wireless speaker than an essential gadget. But Google’s Daydream View VR headset? This is the mobile VR headset I would unreservedly recommend to anyone.
Why the high praise? Mobile VR (i.e., virtual reality powered by a smartphone and some sort of headset) is where I think it’s likely many will experience VR for the first time and experience “presence,” that somewhat-nebulous term used to mean the sense of actually being in a physical space. Its closest (and really only) competitor, the Samsung Gear VR, can do much of the same stuff, and if you’re using it with a Samsung S7 Edge, will compare quite evenly on pure visuals and head tracking.
So why does the Daydream leapfrog above the Gear VR? Simple: It includes a controller — and it’s a controller that makes sense in VR. When you’re using a Samsung Gear VR, you can either interact with things by looking at them long enough to select them, or by using a control pad positioned roughly around your right temple. This is not a great way to interact with, well, almost anything.
Lay out some extra cash on top of the $99 for the Gear VR itself, and you can buy a gamepad that looks an awful lot like an Xbox controller. This is perfect if you’re already a gamer, and good for playing arcade-ish shoot-‘em-ups, but it’s still my belief that for VR to succeed, it needs to do more than appeal to core gamers — it needs to make playing games so easy and casual it can pull an Angry Birds and make games that almost anyone can play without needing to know the difference between RT and RB.
The Daydream’s solution to this is to pack in a controller that essentially works as a pointing wand, with a small touchpad at the top. It is a much better way to interact with the world while being strapped into a VR headset, where you can’t see the outside world. You point at something, or swing the wand like a golf putter, or tilt it around to move things. It’s intuitive and natural — the same way nearly anyone could play a game of Wii Tennis. I could give my parents this thing and have them up and running within a few minutes, playing games or watching some of the (quite impressive) 4K VR videos already up on YouTube. There’s no way either of them would be able to do the same as quickly with a Samsung Gear, especially if I gave them a game controller with more buttons than they have fingers.
There are some other nice touches as well. Your phone automatically recognizes the Daydream and communicates with it wirelessly instead of the Gear VR’s somewhat awkward plugin procedure. The headset is plush and decidedly non-gamerish, looking more like a piece of athleisure clothing than something on the cutting edge of how we interact with stuff inside computers, which is an odd but appealing choice. The area where the headset hits your face is softer as well, which matters when you have something strapped to your face by an elastic band for a good bit a time.
There are some downsides. First off, much like the Samsung Gear VR, it doesn’t include “positional tracking,” meaning while you can turn your head and look up and down, if you lean forward or to the side, those movements won’t register with the headset. It’s a break in overall experience that can snap you out of whatever you’re doing — and something mobile headsets will have to find a way to fix before they can really compare with their higher-end brethren.
Second, the only phones that currently support the Daydream are the Pixel and the Pixel XL, both high-end phones. Unlike the Samsung Gear VR, which can only be used with Samsung phones, the Daydream platform will be open to anyone who meets certain minimum specs, and (per Google) handsets from Motorola, Samsung, HTC, ZTE, Huawei, Xiaomi, Alcatel, Asus, LG, and HTC are all coming that will run Daydream. But it does mean that while the Daydream ($79) is cheaper than the Gear VR ($99), right now you’ll also need a handset that starts at $649 to fully use it. Finally, while the headset is more comfortable than the Gear VR, I still found it uncomfortable to wear for longer than about 45 minutes. Part of this may be that I wear glasses, which places added pressure on my nose, but part of this is any headset that puts weight directly on the area around your eyes is uncomfortable to wear for an extended period. Add in that the Daydream causes the phone to kick off a tremendous amount of heat, and I doubt I would want to wear this thing for longer than an hour, max.
Finally, the Daydream (at least the version I was using before launch) suffered from a paucity of games and things to do. One of the things prominently featured, the Wall Street Journal VR, is uh, an interesting failure at best: You sit in Manhattan high-rise that looks like something out of Second Life and either read WSJ articles on a floating pane in front of you, watch some very grainy VR documentary films, or look at stock prices in a kind of of glowing skyscraper grid that is very William Gibson–esque but not really a great way to get a handle on the market. I’m sure more will be available once the platform opens up to the public, but if you buy this on day one you may find yourself poking around, looking for stuff to do.
The bottom line: If you’re thinking about getting a Pixel or Pixel XL (or already have one) and are at all curious about VR, buy this. You can use it nearly anywhere (though, as I discovered, if you use it at work your co-workers will mock and creepshot you, as happens to all people looking cool while using hip new tech gadgets; it’s our burden). It’s more comfortable and more fun to use than the competition. And while it may not be the great leap forward in VR a lot of people are waiting for, it’s now one of the best VR headsets out there — no wires needed.