Hands-on with Google Daydream: Gear VR has a new rival

Google's first stab at phone-based VR takes it to the front of the pack.

In the world of smartphone-based virtual reality, there’s Gear VR, and then there’s everyone else. Samsung’s collaboration with Oculus has resulted in superior quality and an impressive library of VR experiences. Google Cardboard is cheap, but the quality is bad. Other stuff, like the Xiaomi Mi Play or Zeiss VR One, are plagued with tiny libraries and serious quality issues.

Now there’s a new challenger. I just spent 10 minutes with Google’s new Daydream View headset, and I can honestly say that I think it’s a better overall experience than Gear VR. My early impressions are clear: This is the smartphone VR to beat.

Daydream View will be released in November, with the headset and remote sold together for $79. If my experience is any indication, it’s a must-buy for those picking up a Pixel phone.

Light, comfortable, easy

Google’s VR headset looks weird. It’s all fabric-y, with a texture that looks like denim and feels like soft cotton. Yeah, it takes some getting used to, but it’s definitely more fashionable than slapping a white- or black-plastic brick to your face.

daydream vr 02 Jason Cross

Daydream View will eventually come in 3 colors, but will launch in Slate Grey only.

It’s also very light, and very comfortable. The whole thing flexes and breathes enough to keep your face from becoming a sauna when your phone gets hot (and it will), and with no phone inside you can barely feel it on your face. The hefty Pixel XL I demo’d the system with definitely drags it down a bit—an overhead strap might be a good idea—but it stays put at least as well as Gear VR does.

It’s easier to use than Gear VR, too. Just make sure your Daydream-Ready phone is unlocked, place it on the flap, and close it up. You don’t have to plug it into a USB connection on the headset, or adjust any knobs or levers. There’s sadly no IPD (interpupillary distance) adjustment, but I had no trouble finding the “sweet spot” on the lenses. And I find Gear VR to be notoriously finicky in that regard, particularly because my IPD is on the small end of the average range.

The phone communicates with the Daydream View headset via NFC and gets information like: How far apart are the lenses? Where is the phone lined up in relation to them? It uses this to know where on the phone’s display to draw the left and right eye views to line up properly.

A better VR experience

In terms of VR quality, Daydream with a Pixel XL and Daydream View headset is roughly comparable to Gear VR. The field of view is similar, lens distortion about the same, and there’s surprisingly little screen-door effect. Google's fabric-clad headset does let a little bit of light bleed in right near the temples, but it’s going to be hard to notice unless you’re in a bright room.

daydream test drive 02 Melissa Riofrio

Daydream View should work well for those with glasses, though there is a touch of light bleed near the temples.

Head movement tracking is suitably fast and smooth, with very low motion-to-photon latency. There’s no head position tracking (as you get with Oculus Rift or HTC Vive), so experiences will need to be tailored to allow for minimal head movement, but plenty of head-turning. Again, just like Gear VR.

If you find yourself getting a sick feeling from Cardboard and other cheap VR headsets, I think you’ll like Daydream. Google seems to have checked all the boxes necessary for a hurl-free experience.

It’s all about that controller

Where the Daydream really has one over on Gear VR is in its included motion controller. To manipulate the Gear VR, you have to either buy and sync a gamepad, or use a little touch area up on the right side of the headset. It’s awkward.

daydream view

It’s not just the headset that matters, it’s the remote. The remote makes for a vastly improved VR experience.

The Daydream spec calls for a motion controller, which is included with Google’s Daydream View headset. It’s a little pill-shaped remote, not that unlike the one that comes with the Oculus Rift. It features a swipeable, tappable, clickable concave touch pad with a single button underneath (that apps can use to call up menus and the like). A second, dimpled button returns you to the Daydream home screen, and a pair of volume buttons do exactly what you’d expect them to.

This little thing is essentially like having a Wii remote with the MotionPlus adapter on it. It’s accurate and responsive enough to let you draw, write, and point. There’s a bit of lag to it—it’s got nothing on the HTC Vive’s precisely-tracked controllers. Still, it’s a vastly better default way to interact with VR apps than the Gear VR’s side-mounted touch pad, or even a game controller. I played a bit of an exclusive game based on JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that had me waving around the controller like a wand, and a cartoonish barnyard-themed “tip the maze to get the ball through” game that worked just by tilting the controller. Both were perfect examples of how interacting with VR is better with hand-waving controls.

The new king of smartphone VR

I’m sure at some point in the future we’ll have full head movement and room-scale VR experiences all driven by our smartphones. We’ll be able to manipulate the world with our regular ol' hands without using a controller, and we won’t be able to see the pixels at all.

But the technology to bring that to the mass market isn’t here yet. For today’s technology and its limitations, not to mention the price sensitivity of an add-on gadget that can only be used with your already-expensive high-end phone, Daydream View nails it. It’s affordable at only $79, comfortable, lightweight, and it looks pretty good (for a big thing you strap to your face, that is). It's dead simple to use, and it comes with a great motion controller. I don’t know how many other Android phones (besides the two Pixels) are going to be Daydream-Ready in the coming months, but for those that are, this is a must-have accessory.

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