The first thing I noticed about Google’s new Daydream View VR headset is the pink controller.
In the original View, all plastic parts were beige or gray, even if you got the model wrapped with rich crimson fabric. Now, they’re coordinated: if you buy the colorful “Coral” edition, you’ll get a coral remote, too. It’s not a big change, but it’s emblematic of Google’s overall goal: re-creating last year’s carefully engineered mobile headset, undoing a few mistakes, and making its individual parts a little nicer.
Google announced the second-generation Daydream View at today’s Pixel 2 event, where it opened preorders for an October 19th launch at $99. Like its predecessor, the View will work with any phone that supports Google’s Daydream platform, including the Samsung Galaxy S8, S8 Plus, and Note 8. The overall design hasn’t changed, and neither has the laser pointer-like remote. You still sandwich your phone between the View’s front flap and a pair of lenses, which automatically launches a special Daydream Home interface. And the experience is still a compromise between Google’s ultra-cheap Cardboard and an array of high-end standalone VR headsets, which feature more processing power and full motion tracking.
But Google says it’s boosting the new View (unlike the new Pixel, Google never calls it the “View 2”) just a little higher on the VR ladder, with better optics and new materials. The smooth, dappled jersey of the old View has been replaced with a solid, more textured fabric; instead of Slate, Snow, and Crimson, you can pick from “Charcoal,” “Fog,” and “Coral.” The fabric change is symbolic as well as aesthetic. Google talked with fashion and wearable companies for the first Daydream View, looking to build something that felt like clothing. This time around, VR product manager Andrew Nartker says it’s supposed to evoke furniture upholstery.
The Daydream team no longer emphasizes the View’s small size or portability-enhancing design features, like a strap that protects the lenses from damage in transit. Instead, Nartker describes the View as a product that will “have a nice spot on your living room coffee table,” which is apparently how most owners are using it. “They use it at home; they love it,” he says. “They share it around at parties.”
Google is walking back the View’s stripped-down design
Google also promises performance and usability tweaks. The new View uses custom-designed wider lenses and has a field of view that’s supposedly 10 to 15 degrees wider than before. (People’s experience will vary based on their phone’s screen size.) Its face mask has been redesigned to spread pressure more evenly, and a removable top strap makes it feel more secure. The remote now clips to the main strap, instead of fitting inside the front panel, since Nartker says that people wanted to be able to access it more quickly. And the new front panel doubles as a heat sink, with a hollow design that’s supposed to cool the phone more than just leaving it uncovered.
With things like the top strap and the shifted controller clip, Google is walking back some of the first-generation View’s most distinctive — but not entirely successful — design elements. The result is starting to look more like the Gear VR, which has consistently traded elegance for performance and convenience. Google describes this View as a “more premium” product than its predecessor, which we can’t definitively judge yet, since we were only able to try a nonfunctional version. But the top strap does help relieve pressure on the face, and the headset blocks light far better now, without feeling more restrictive. Google says the plastic controller ought to feel more solid, but we didn’t notice a difference.
The View’s $99 price tag isn’t exactly premium, but it is more than the original $79 View, albeit cheaper than the $129 Gear VR. Nartker says Google struck a balance between improving the hardware and keeping the headset accessible. The original View was frequently sold at a steep discount, or included free in phone bundles, so many buyers may pay less.
That $99 price now marks the low end of Google’s Daydream line, which is branching out to include standalone VR headsets made by partners HTC and Lenovo. These headsets will feature full positional tracking, unlike the Daydream View. Google’s head of virtual and augmented reality Clay Bavor says they will be priced closer to a tethered PC headset, like the $499 Oculus Rift or $599 HTC Vive. We’re supposed to see more information about them later this year.
The View now marks the low end of Google’s Daydream line
Google hasn’t revealed sales figures for the original Daydream View, but so far Daydream has apparently trailed Samsung’s competing Gear VR, which shipped 5 million headsets by the beginning of 2017. The core Daydream Android app hit 1 million installs on the Play Store in June, versus well over 25 million for the Cardboard app, according to the Google Play Store. This may include people who installed the app but don’t have a headset, or who are using one headset across multiple phones.
While Google doesn’t have Daydream app leaderboards, four of the 20 third-party launch apps — all free — have cracked 50,000 installs so far, and the two best-selling paid launch apps (the games Hunters Gate and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes) now have between 10,000 and 50,000 installs.
Bavor says Daydream View shipments have been “in line with our expectations,” driven heavily by the Google Pixel preorder bundle that included a free View. He also says there’s been a sales bump since Samsung phones added support this summer. The original View only worked with Pixel phones, but the second-generation model will launch with over a dozen supported devices from Samsung, LG, ZTE, Huawei, Motorola, and Asus.
There might be more Daydream headsets, but not this year
Google described the first View as one of several Daydream headsets made by different manufacturers. A year later, Huawei is the only company to have announced its own headset, and it still doesn’t appear to have been released. However, third-party devices are apparently still on the table, though none are likely to launch in 2017. “In the next year, you'll be seeing some partner-built, partner-industrial-designed headsets that go out with their own phones,” says Bavor.
Now that Samsung is on board with Daydream, the View’s biggest limitation is a lack of iOS support. Apple’s high-end iPhone X uses VR-friendly OLED displays, but don’t expect to ever use one with a Daydream View. Google supports basic Cardboard apps on iOS, but Bavor says it couldn’t optimize the iPhone for Daydream without the low-level system software access it has in Android, and that it would take too much work to re-create the entire Google VR service library for iOS. “It's not in the cards at all for now,” he says.
There’s less incentive for users to make Android-only apps, but Google is still pushing new material onto Daydream. It’s announcing several VR YouTube series, including Austin City Limits, which takes viewers backstage with artists on the eponymous music series; The Confessional, where comedians like Trevor Noah offer “confessions” to viewers; and The Female Planet, which profiles female entrepreneurs and leaders. Users who buy the new Daydream View at launch will also get a free bundle of five popular games.
Unlike last year, the View is no longer Google’s most high-tech virtual reality offering. With wireless, fully tracked headsets on the way, it feels more clearly like a phone accessory than ever — a big, squishy case that enables a cool feature. But the humble mobile headset still has its place in the VR world. It’s accessible, easy to use, and works as well as any other headset for 360-degree video, which fills a huge chunk of the time people spend in VR.
Last year, we called the first Daydream View the “coziest VR headset.” We were talking about the fabric, but a year later, it meets another definition of “cozy” as well: comfortable familiarity.
Correction: The original version of this article referred to the Austin City Limits music festival, not television series.