Until I had my hands on Playstation VR I couldn’t understand the need for any VR that wasn’t mobile. Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard are both “good enough” experiences with price tags a mere fraction of those of hulking VR systems like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. For most people the only VR you need is the kind you show off at parties and family gatherings, and never think about again.
Then I played PS VR, and experienced genuinely good VR games. Now mobile VR has a higher bar to clear to be great. I had the opportunity to try out Google’s newly launched Daydream VR platform, using its $80 View headset and its Pixel smartphone, and though I’ll reserve final judgement for our proper review, for now it seems clear that mobile VR just isn’t there yet. In the end Daydream highlights both how incredible VR can be, and also how inadequate mobile VR can be.
The Daydream platform and hardware are basically a big copy of Samsung and Oculus’s Gear VR. It’s a headset and phone that Voltron into a VR experience. Google’s system uses snazzier design than Samsung’s, and it comes with a controller.
Slipping on Google’s Daydream View headset, I’m instantly immersed in a new world. The headset is very light, and doesn’t quite shut the world out like a larger headset does, so bits of light leak in. To its credit, the images on the phone are bright and colorful. The home interface feels a lot like the world Samsung and Oculus built for the Samsung Gear VR. There’s a group of tiles you stare at, and when you select them it dives you deeper into your chosen world.
Google has done an admirable job removing many of the barriers that have plagued VR before. To the point that the View doesn’t just feel well designed, it feels considerate. Daydream View is much lighter than Samsung’s headset, and it’s much smaller too. There isn’t any plug you have to jam your phone onto, or special framing you have to set it in. You just drop the phone in and the headset, and it pairs automatically via NFC. The effect is instant and smooth. It’s a welcome relief from the bugs that sometimes pop up with Gear VR.
Using the bundled controller is also a welcome change for phone-based VR. It pairs with the headset via Bluetooth and it’s spectacularly precise. I used it to select the tiles on the center screen, but I could also flit it around without any of the jitteriness that plagues these pointer-like controllers on other systems. If I wanted to write my name legibly, I could do it with the Daydream controller a lot easier than I could my finger and a smartphone.
I hopped into a game where I tilted a board with the controller to navigate a giant cow through a maze. The Google rep didn’t have to explain the game to me. Moving the controller instantly moved the board. It felt as natural as moving a giant cow around a maze can be.
My quick jaunt into JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was far less intuitive. My wand (the controller) sometimes disappeared from view, and at one point the phone forgot which way I was pointed, immediately disorienting me. This highlights a problem that happens again and again with mobile VR. It’s buggy. Mobile VR always feels half finished.
Besides the bugs, Daydream has technical limitations that hinder the experience. The screen doesn’t refresh as quickly as it would on something like the PS VR or Vive, so fast movements make the video look like its passing through Jell-o. My eyes struggled to focus and I found myself repeatedly fidgeting with the headset to try and get a better look. Even after a few minutes I felt nausea set in.
In the end, Daydream’s experience is passable. You can whip it out at parties to show your friends, or present to family after dinner. It’s still conversation VR. A way for you all to muse about the future and what could come next.
Maybe that will change when it officially launches in November alongside the Pixel.