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Google Daydream View review: mobile VR done mostly right

My VR daily driver

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Nearly a year ago, I wrote about a then-new product called the Samsung Gear VR — a mobile phone-powered headset that promised cheap, mainstream virtual reality, but it delivered something I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. The Gear VR felt innovative but clumsy, powerful but isolating. Mobile VR could do great things, but not in a way that worked for me.For the last week, I’ve been trying a new product built on much the same premise: Google’s Daydream View, a $79 pair of goggles that work with the new Pixel and Pixel XL phones. The View is the first of what Google says will be several headsets made for Daydream, a VR platform that was introduced in Android 7.1 Nougat.

As Daydream’s herald, the View has to win over two different groups of people: the consumers deciding whether they’ll use the platform, and the manufacturers who are weighing how heavily they’ll invest in it down the road. It’s doing so by making some of the most interesting hardware choices I’ve seen in VR, producing a headset unlike anything on the market. But like so much VR, the software it supports is still more about potential than reality. The difference between Daydream and any amount of VR vaporware, though, is that this potential isn’t just clear — it seems well within reach.

On a structural level, the Daydream View is much like Samsung’s Gear VR, or even Google’s super-simple Cardboard headsets. It’s a molded shell that accommodates a mobile phone, with a one-handed control scheme — in this case, a small bundled remote with limited motion tracking capabilities. For now, the View is Pixel-only, but it’s designed for any Daydream-compatible phone that’s released down the line.

Beyond that controller, there are no flashy new features on Daydream. It doesn’t include innovations like inside-out cameras or eye-tracking, to name two of Google’s rumored VR projects. It doesn’t mimic real-world motion like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, with room-scale tracking and full-fledged virtual hands. You won’t even find the Gear VR’s pass-through camera feature, which lets you "turn on" the real world.

Looking for exotic tech in Daydream is missing the point

That’s because looking for exotic tech in Google’s headset is missing the point of Daydream. Despite their limited capabilities, existing mobile headsets — primarily Cardboard and the Gear VR — have attracted a striking number of game developers. Virtual reality videos are far more likely to appear on mobile headsets than Rifts or Vives, particularly because YouTube already supports Cardboard. But this content is fun in spite of existing hardware, not because of it. Mobile VR doesn’t necessarily need more features, it just needs the existing ones wrapped in a package that people can enjoy instead of endure.

In my personal experience, the View is the best mobile headset I’ve ever used. Its squishy foam-and-fabric body is significantly smaller, lighter, and more portable than the Gear VR, and its design keeps the lenses relatively protected during travel. Like PlayStation VR, the View rests more weight on your forehead than your cheeks, an option I’ve found more comfortable — I can wear it easily for hours at a time, compared to about the five minutes I can hold a Google Cardboard to my face before my arms get stiff. The head strap’s use of plastic sliders instead of velcro patches gives it a wider range of sizes and avoids gathering lint. The whole design, which could almost pass for an airplane sleep mask, avoids looking ostentatiously high-tech or intimidating. Wearing any VR headset around other people is still awkward, but with the View, I feel a little less like somebody bringing their desktop computer to a coffee shop.

The View launches today in only one color, a heathered slate gray; "crimson" and "snow" versions will come in the weeks to follow. Crimson seems to be the universal favorite, but I’ve become a fan of the slate’s low-key sweatshirt vibe as well. It’s spot-cleanable but so far dirt-resistant, and the mask — where all your face grime accumulates — detaches neatly for hand-washing.

Just as importantly, the View smooths out a lot of the speed bumps around entering and leaving VR. Even as someone who covers VR professionally, I’ve sometimes put off using the Gear VR because of its clumsy setup, which involves snapping your phone delicately onto a USB jack — often more than once, when the startup software fails to launch. The View, by contrast, uses a flat tray that clamps almost any reasonably sized phone to the front of the headset, held shut by a small elastic loop at the top. If that phone is Daydream-compatible, has the Daydream app installed, and is placed with the volume and power buttons facing upward, an NFC chip on the tray will tell it to launch into VR. A pair of capacitive plastic nubs detect where the screen should center, eliminating the trial-and-error adjustments that Cardboard sometimes required.

The View is best once you’ve gotten to know it

I’ve done this roughly five-second process dozens of times (at least) with the Pixel and Pixel XL, and it’s worked almost invariably. If you have to do something outside VR — like granting app permissions, which you’ll need to do occasionally — it’s easy to open the tray and take a peek without totally removing the phone.

I’m not sure how well my experience generalizes, though, because the things I find innovative about the View have confused most of the colleagues I’ve tested it on. It doesn’t have an overhead strap like most VR headsets, so people tend to pull its headband too tight to compensate, causing a headache and tilting the body in a way that lets light in. Without a focus wheel, they’ve had trouble moving it around to get the best-quality image. And I’ve had to explain the slider system to almost everyone who’s seen it. Once you’ve found the perfect View adjustment, it feels great — or at least, it does for me. But if you let a friend try one for a few minutes, they might just think it’s ill-fitting.

The Pixel and Pixel XL also don’t provide the exact same experience. Both phones are equally powerful, and the displays are highly responsive, albeit as grainy as every other headset. I’ve gotten a roughly similar three to four hours of solid use out of both — and the USB-C charging port is unobstructed, so they’re not difficult to plug in and keep using. But compared to the 5.5-inch XL, the 5-inch Pixel distinctly narrows your field of view by a few degrees, leaving slim vertical bars around the edge of your vision.

Even with these caveats, though, the View offers a great core experience without a major investment of time, money, or effort — a truly casual kind of virtual reality. This provides breathing room that mobile VR, including the early Daydream catalog, still needs.

Google has promised over 50 Daydream apps by the end of the year, similar to what Sony's promised for PlayStation VR. Today, it's listing 25 launch apps, split evenly between games and non-game experiences. I was also able to launch Cardboard apps on my Pixel and use them with the View, expanding the overall options.

But during our review period, we had access to ten apps, half of which were from Google. The list included a couple of puzzle and action games, Google’s photo and video viewers, The Wall Street Journal’s VR news app, and educational offerings like an interactive star chart. These are all competently executed projects, and most of them nicely avoid the need for frequent 360-degree spinning, something I found alienating on Gear VR. Things like Star Chart tie nicely into Google's educational program as well. Most of the work I've spent time with so far, though, doesn’t show the intense ambition that Oculus has encouraged, nor the quirky high-concept experimentation that Vive (and some Gear VR) developers have embraced. And things like Photos and Play Movies feel like the utility apps on your PC or phone — you should expect them to be there, but they’re not marquee selling points.

Daydream's apps are competent, but not always ambitious

Google’s anchor so far is the Daydream version of YouTube, which includes a VR-friendly interface and voice search options. It plays both 360-degree and flatscreen videos, the latter on an adjustable big screen in a subtly shaded gray dome. And this could take Daydream far. At last month’s Connect conference, Oculus revealed that Gear VR users spent roughly equal amounts of time in active games and more passive experiences like videos. YouTube is already a clearinghouse of 360-degree video, and Google is commissioning several YouTube-exclusive VR series.

But it’s interactivity, and the handheld controller, that really sets Daydream apart. Google’s remote has a clickable trackpad on the top, a button that generally brings up in-game menus, and a "home" button that can be long-pressed to recenter the headset, along with volume rockers along the side. It doesn’t have true motion tracking, but its internal sensors make it a very precise laser pointer. Software tweaks can let it mirror limited natural arm motion, and a menu option optimizes its orientation for either your left or right hand.

If you think of the remote like a miniature Rift or Vive controller, it will be disappointing — don’t expect to reach out and grab things with your hands, for example. Its plastic also feels a little cheap, although that’s fairly appropriate given the price. But it’s already being put to work in a wide variety of uses. In one Daydream mini-game, you throw sticks for a VR canine; in another, the controller becomes a golf club. Other titles use it in less literal ways. The strongest game I've played on Daydream, a Diablo-like dungeon-crawler called Hunter’s Gate, has players move by treating the trackpad like a joystick and shoot by pointing the controller at enemies. This combination of motions feels like trying to simultaneously pat your head and rub your stomach at first, but once you get used to it, it’s an elegant adaptation of gamepad controls.

On a broader level, the controller feels natural in a way that other mobile VR controls generally don’t. Both Cardboard and Gear VR make wearers tap or swipe their temples, using a button and trackpad respectively. It’s tiring to keep your hand up all the time, and putting it down means fumbling for the controls again every time you need them. Some Gear VR games allow or require third-party Bluetooth controllers, but they’re inconvenient to buy separately and carry around. The remote is both more compact and more capable, and an elastic band in the headset tray keeps it stored safely between uses.

Finally, a mobile VR controller that makes sense

The remote’s shortcomings are minor annoyances. My controller’s position sometimes drifted out of place, mostly during experiences that snap the cursor toward something on-screen, pulling it away from the remote’s real-world orientation. Recentering takes only a moment, but it makes the otherwise polished interface feel unreliable — the worst thing an input device can be.

The controller uses the same USB-C jack as the Pixel phone, and Google says it gets around 12 hours of life, which roughly tallies with my experience. But short of a last-ditch low-power light, you can’t check its battery level. Daydream is supposed to be a quick, breezy platform, and if I’m picking the View up for a day trip, I should be able to gauge whether I’ve got enough battery life to make it worth bringing, even if I forgot to charge it the night before.

Mostly, though, I just want more from Daydream. That includes more experiences, but also more from the interface itself. Daydream is supposed to be tightly integrated with Android, and it can leverage people’s existing Google accounts to make things like buying apps from its Play Store seamless. Daydream will deliver important notifications while you’re in VR, although you have to exit to do things like grant permissions or connect to a Wi-Fi network.

But it feels like it should do so much more. Google Assistant, a major selling point of the Pixel, could effectively give Daydream a hands-free user interface for everything from browsing the web to sending text messages. Instead of a walled entertainment garden, mobile VR could feel like a real operating system, even if it’s a limited one. For now, though, Assistant appears only as a voice search feature in YouTube.

Google designed an entire hands-free interface and didn’t use it

This sense of unrealized potential is common for VR hardware. But one of Daydream’s strengths is that there’s a much clearer roadmap than usual. When I asked about Assistant, for example, a Google spokesperson readily provided hypothetical examples of Daydream integration; in the long run, it seems inevitable. Apps are still thin on the ground, but I’d be happy just to see most of the Gear VR catalog show up on Daydream — which, after the highly curated launch period, is a fairly realistic expectation.

Unfortunately, there’s one big problem with Google’s plan: if you have an iPhone, you’re out of luck. If Daydream successfully expands beyond the Pixel, and other manufacturers make their own alternative headsets, it could become a universal Android VR platform. But even if this happens, that still cuts out a huge portion of smartphone users, and Google has told me repeatedly that its tight integration with Android makes an iOS release unlikely. This might not be an issue for VR video, which is easy to distribute across almost any headset. But developers could be less likely to make complex experiences for Google’s unique control system, removing one of the View’s major advantages.

Daydream probably won’t be where I have my most amazing VR moments, and I’m hoping to see wilder and weirder things from Google now that it’s launched. But the View is a much-needed daily driver, a cheap and comfortable venue for the VR mobile apps and videos people point me toward every week. The only question is whether its platform can become something more — and, if it does, just how far it can go.

Photography by James Bareham. This review was originally published on November 10, 2016 and has been updated on November 11, 2016 to include video.