While visiting the Made by Google pop-up shop in New York City this morning, I had a chance to try out the new Daydream View virtual reality headset.
First impressions are important, and Google's new mobile VR product makes a good one. The headset is made of a soft fabric that most evokes a beloved old college sweater that's well worn but properly cared for. The demo only featured the Slate (darker gray) model, though customers will ultimately be able to choose from either Slate, Snow, and Crimson.
By itself, the headset is lightweight and the added 5.93 oz of the Google Pixel XL, which runs the Daydream platform and provides the display, doesn't change much. Once the strap has been properly adjusted, the Daydream View fits snug on the wearer's head. My bespectacled coworker noted that it was the first VR headset she'd tried that was actually comfortable when worn over her glasses. The facepad—the inner mask-looking piece with eye holes and a nose dent—can be removed and is hand-washable.
Stored within the front face of the headset is a simple remote controller used as the sole input method (aside from head tracking) for Daydream VR. The sleek oblong is small but stuffed with functionality in order to 'transform' as needed for whatever in-game uses developers come up with. Inside it packs a gyroscope, magnetometer, and accelerometer for fine-tuned spacial tracking. The large circular concavity you see at the top of the controller is a touchpad and the whole face can be clicked like a mouse. Beneath the touchpad, are the "app" and "home" buttons. The volume controls are on the right side.
During the limited demo I was able to experience the main menu and two games. The navigation is pretty straightforward. For the most part, your in-game experience will have a cursor that follows the controller's movements with a beam of light like a laser pointer. I found that the cursor would frequently move off center, forcing me to either list steadily to one side or recenter the entire experience with a jarring clip by holding down the "home" button.
There were no headphones available at the demo, so the sound played through the Pixel XL's bottom (and only) speaker. That made it pretty much impossible to hear over the ambient noise and chatter of the event around me, and when I could hear it was obviously lopsided. Still, the level of immersion was downright impressive for a mobile VR experience. Limited, yes, but impressive nonetheless.
The two games available were J.K. Rowling's "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," and a kid-centric collection of mini-games called "Wonderglade." While Fantastic Beasts was a superb showcase of Daydream's graphical and functional capabilities, Wonderglade made more use of the controller's in-game versatility.
One mini-game in Wonderglade was a digital version of those old wooden marble mazes where you have to adjust the board in order to navigate the marbles to their goal while avoiding holes. Here, the pitch and yaw of the controller affected the movement of the entire board.
The Daydream View headset is comfortable. It is. But the material, soft and cozy and gray, imparts what can only be described as the feeling of having a pair of stiff sweatpants on your face. Plus, the phone heats up quick. So add to that image of stiff sweatpants a gently humming heating pad just inches away, and you'll have a close mental approximation of what it feels like to use the Daydream View for just a quick five minute virtual jaunt. After the demo, my face was all beaded up with sweat where the headset had been.
[UPDATE: Responding to Tom's comment, I realized that I should note that the device used in the Daydream demo had been running for quite a while before I used it. Sweatface may not occur with moderate usage.]
Overall, though, face sweat and brutal battery drainage really isn't such a high cost to pay for an honestly great VR experience—mobile or otherwise. The late-2016, two-punch combo of Google's Daydream and Playstation VR is going to make some serious headway in the march toward mass-adoption of VR and related technologies.
For everything from its portability to its capability to its thoughtful design, I solidly vouch for the Daydream View. If you're on the fence and in New York City, go check it out.
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