Review Google’s VR headset

Daydream is a step up in price and class compared to the Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers that Google and its partners make available.
Daydream is a step up in price and class compared to the Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers that Google and its partners make available.

Here’s the chief reality behind Google’s virtual reality headset: it all boils down to content.
In the week that I’ve had to test Daydream View, I not only craved more VR content, but wished more of the Daydream experiences I tried blew me away. Only a select few apps were made available by Google for this review.

Still, the beauty and promise of all virtual reality is that it places you somewhere that would be difficult if not near impossible for most of us to experience day-to-day. And as a mobile VR solution along the lines of Samsung’s Gear VR, Daydream does give you a hint of that promise.
Google’s headset was unveiled in September and went on sale in Australia and the US last week. You can’t buy it in New Zealand yet.

I particularly enjoyed poking around YouTube VR. In one video I landed in the Artic, within virtual spitting distance of a polar bear and cub. In another, I got to see what it was like in the depths of the Isle of Jaws, a hotbed for great white sharks.
It was also fun watching movie trailers on the virtual gigantic screen theatre inside Google Play, though I’m not convinced I’d commit hours of wearing Daydream on my head to take in an entire film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

WHAT YOU NEED

For now, you’ll need to buy one of the two recently launched Google smartphones, the Pixel or the Pixel XL, to experience Daydream, since these are the only compatible phones on the market.

Google Daydream only works with the company's Pixel phones.
Google Daydream only works with the company’s Pixel phones.

More capable Android handsets are on the way, and so are more capable Daydream-ready apps. Google expects Daydream phones to arrive in the coming months from Samsung, HTC, ZTE, Xiaomi, Alcatel, Asus, LG, Motorola, and HTC. Huawei’s recently announced new Mate 9 Pro is also going to work with Daydream.

In the slowly evolving consumer ecosystem for virtual reality, you can lump Daydream in with the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR. Gear VR also only works with a limited set of smartphones, for now all models from Samsung.

Daydream is a step up in price and class compared to the Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers that Google and its partners make available.

And like Gear VR, it is way cheaper and accessible, albeit less compelling, than the pricey Oculus Rift or HTV Vive machines that need to be tethered to powerful computers, or the PlayStation VR system that Sony sells, which connects to PlayStation game consoles.

DAYDREAM VERSUS GEAR VR

Daydream is made of a light breathable fabric and it is more compact and comfortable to wear than the hard plastic Gear VR, which at times felt heavy on the bridge of my nose. Both headsets can be worn over eyeglasses.

You start out by placing the Pixel on a tray and closing a latch that is secured by pulling an elastic loop over a nub. The outer edge of your phone remains exposed so that you can plug in headphones.
As you pull the Daydream over your head, you’ll want to ensure a tight fit by adjusting a strap. I found that the headset sometime slid down slightly on the front of my face.

That’s important not only for comfort but for a proper focus. There’s no focus wheel like there is on Gear VR, which means that how sharp the images appear to you inside Daydream directly correlates to how the thing lays on your face.

Another big difference between Daydream and Gear VR is that Google’s set comes with a separate wireless oblong controller, which has a clickable touchpad and a few buttons for controlling apps, volume and the action in whatever VR experience you’re involved in.

On Gear VR, there’s a built-in touchpad along the right temple, so this is a big advantage for Google. Samsung has more apps at the moment.

I like having the separate controller but sometime had to fuss with the controls to make the cursor appear inside an app or the Daydream Home forest environment, which is the starting place for finding content and accessing the Play Store.

You can stow the controller inside Daydream when you’re not using the headset; its kept in place by an elastic band, minimising the chance that you’ll misplace it.

The Daydream controller has a USB-C charging port that is compatible with the cable that comes with the Pixel. According to the Google the controller, battery will last about 12 hours or more than a day in standby mode.

Most concerning, however, is the fact that the battery inside the Pixel phone appears to be draining pretty quickly when you’re using Daydream, and the Pixel itself runs exceedingly hot. I’m not suggesting you’re facing the kind of risk that required Samsung to recall its Note 7 device (which was one of the phones that worked with Gear VR), just that this is something you really notice.

BRING ON THE CONTENT

In the end, of course, Daydream will live or die by the content you get to watch. Among the experiences I got to try and enjoy was an outerspace simulation called Star Chart VR, which let me travel from Earth to Mars to Saturn.

Inside a Google Arts & Culture app, I viewed audio-guided masterpieces by van Gogh and other artists. And back inside YouTube, I especially enjoyed watching and listening (via spatial 3D audio) the Does Not Exist VR beatboxing video from Reeps One.

I also played a game called Mekorama in which you try to help a small robot navigate puzzling mechanical dioramas. In another, called Wonderglade, which seems more suited for young kids, I played carnival games in a theme park.

Still, I wanted more. Google lists numerous apps it says will reach Daydream before the end of the year. Many are from such media properties as BBC, CNN and the New York Times.

A number of entertainment-oriented apps are also on the list, including HBO Go, Hulu VR, Jaunt, the NBA, NextVR and Netflix.

And more games are coming too, ranging from Need for Speed: No Limits VR from EA to Home Run Derby by Major League Baseball.

Bringing them on will make virtual reality that much more real and engaging.