When Google revealed its Cardboard virtual reality platform back in 2014, it launched an endless series of conversations in which I tried to explain why a $20 piece of cardboard wasn’t the same as an Oculus Rift. The two might both get called "VR," I protested, but their technology and design created two fundamentally different ways to interact with virtual worlds.
Two years later, Google has another VR platform. This one is called Daydream, and it’s launching on the Pixel and Pixel XL phones, along with a $79 headset called Daydream View. More compatible phones and headsets are expected in the next several months, with the goal of turning Daydream into a standard Android VR platform. And already, I can hear the question: So it’s Cardboard, but nicer?
Daydream View, which will come out early next month, is roughly comparable to Samsung’s Gear VR. Both are goggles that turn phones into virtual reality headsets, combined with a custom controller that’s far more complex than Cardboard’s single-button setup. Daydream View, though, aims to be the anti-Gear VR. Where Samsung made a hard plastic shell, Google made a squishy foam mask. Where Samsung built a trackpad directly into the Gear VR’s temple, Google put Daydream’s controls in a separate remote with limited motion tracking. And where Samsung introduced the Gear VR by sending computer graphics genius John Carmack on stage to geek out about processing power, Google VR head Clay Bavor will proudly talk about how Daydream doesn’t seem high-tech.
"When we looked at headsets out there, they looked and felt much more like consumer electronics, gadgets, than they did something you’d wear," said Bavor when I spoke to him before today’s event. "We wanted it to be something that you’d look at and know how to put on, that would be unintimidating."
Google apparently built Daydream View with the help of an unnamed shoe and apparel manufacturer, and the influence shows. The bulk of the headset is covered in soft fabric, with a choice of three colors: "slate," "snow," and "crimson." (Sadly, only slate will be available at launch.) Its sides are firm but bendable, and a front panel folds out to reveal a plastic interior. On the other side of its lenses, there’s a microfiber face mask that’s attached with velcro, so it can be removed and hand-washed. The plastic frame feels a little cheap, but not shoddy or fragile. The whole thing looks like a bulky sleep mask, or a classy, minimalist gym shoe for your face — which feels better than it sounds.
Like the Gear VR, the Daydream View has a single strap that holds it around your head. The strap is designed to be easily tightened by pulling two buckles along its length, and it keeps the headset on just fine, even if mine felt like it kept slipping very slightly. The mask, when I kept it at the right angle, also shut out light about as well as most decent VR headsets. (Conversely, my colleague Dieter had no problem with the strap, but noticed light seeping in.)
But what’s really interesting is the way that this (relatively) down-to-earth feel is only possible because of small, invisible bits of tech. When a user opens the front panel and puts their phone down, for example, an embedded NFC chip will tell it to automatically switch to Android’s Daydream interface. All that’s left to do is close the View back up, stretching an elastic loop over a plastic nub on the top.
Daydream doesn’t guide users to perfectly center their phones. Instead, a pair of capacitive bumps tell the screen where it’s positioned, and the image automatically aligns itself to match. The panel’s bottom hinges can slide out slightly for different phone thicknesses, or phones in cases. "There’s a lot of overhead in getting in and out of VR" with current headsets, says Bavor. "You have to remove something, you have to clip something in, and then another clip, and do it just right, and so on. It was really important to us that it was seconds in, seconds out."
I only got to try Daydream with one (case-free) Pixel phone, but in my limited experience, that claim holds up. I carelessly folded the Pixel into the headset several times, only to find the image in perfect focus — at worst, the field of view seemed a little smaller when I shifted the phone far enough to start cutting off the screen. It’s a far cry from the awkward jiggling and sliding I normally have to do to make a Cardboard experience look good. The screen was smooth and low-latency, although moving your head very quickly will create noticeable motion blur — not anything stuttery or jagged, but more like some kind of gloss that’s supposed to protect you from motion sickness.
More than the materials or ergonomics, what sets Daydream’s hardware apart is its controller, an oblong disc with a clickable trackpad, two menu buttons, and a volume rocker. The Daydream controller is Google’s attempt at making "the mouse of VR," as Daydream project manager Andrew Nartker puts it. While it doesn’t have the external motion-tracking capabilities of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR controllers, its internal sensors can precisely tell which direction it’s pointed, and can loosely follow a user’s hand over short distances. When Daydream was announced, the team enigmatically hinted at a design that would prevent you from losing it, and we now know what that is: a groove and elastic loop on the inside of the front panel of the headset, which holds the controller firmly in place between uses.
If you’re used to Vive or Touch controllers, the Daydream remote feels a little weird at first. Since it responds to directional shifts better than spatial motion, you have to keep your arm relatively still for best results, aiming with your wrist instead. Once you get used to that, though, it’s responsive and precise enough to select items from a menu, type using an on-screen keyboard, or handle the apps Google is showcasing, like a labyrinth marble game and a Harry Potter-themed wand game. Again, it’s a far cry from Cardboard, which isn’t great with anything more complex than a passive 360-degree video.
View isn’t going to be the only Daydream headset; other manufacturers are set to release their own versions based on Google’s reference design in the coming months. Google hasn’t made its exact requirements for Daydream-compatible hardware public, but Natkter says that they include things like what optics a manufacturer can use and how the phone fits into the headset, along with the tightly standardized controller. Beyond that, companies will be able to use different materials or add extra features — think headsets with built-in high-quality headphones, or ones with a Mophie-style external battery pack.
"We don’t want people to go too far away from that [default], because I think it just distracts from the elegance and simplicity of what Daydream is today," says Nartker. "But the partners that we’re working with could think of those features, and start to push that direction."
While Google was vague about cross-compatibility earlier this year, it’s now confirming that any Daydream headset should work with any Daydream phone. As those phones age, though, Google plans to start separating them into generations, so an old enough device might not be able to run new apps. How long will those generations be? As with other VR products, it's apparently too early to say.
Daydream will ultimately live or die based on whether Google can deliver any compelling experiences for it. But the easier and more pleasant it is to use, and the lower the barrier to getting into those experiences, the easier it is to make them feel worth people’s time. That’s what Daydream View is all about — and so far, it seems to be doing its job.
Updated with hands-on video.