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​Google Daydream View VR full, in-depth review

The virtual reality world just changed for the better
  • Nick Ross (PC World)
  • 11 November, 2016 11:55

We’ve seen a few VR headsets for phones lately – they simply hold onto your phone and allow it to access what was, until today, a small world of VR videos and a few apps. Google’s Daydream View VR system is a headset plus a Bluetooth controller wand which finally lets you interact with virtual worlds displayed on your phone – like properly interact.

The wand and the software are the key elements here. But first let’s take a look at the headset itself.

Google Daydream VR Headset

Despite performing the same VR goggles function as previous VR headsets that we’ve seen (like the 3SIXT VR Headset and Zeiss VR One Plus) this one isn’t made out of plastic and foam pads. It’s fabric-coated with a flap at the front. The lenses are plastic like the 3SIXT and the 360fly headsets. The flap is the important part as few manufacturers have managed to get this right: the phone clasps often get in the way of the buttons on the phone's side and frequently exert enough pressure on them to activate functions like volume and power off – which is annoying. Google’s flap is secured with elasticated band (like a hair band) and attaches to a plastic hook. As such it’s easily the quickest-to-use clasp we’ve seen although having a better way to line up the middle of the phone with the holder would be helpful. You can also access the controls on the side of your phone while you use the headset... but you probably won't need to.

You can easily access the phone's controls when using the Daydream VR headset.
You can easily access the phone's controls when using the Daydream VR headset.

There are some Near Field smarts in the front flap as the headset detected the phone when we placed there for the first time and offered to install the Daydream app for us. However, you can just download it from the Play Store and you can still use other headsets without missing out on anything.

But we do have some reservations. The shape and size of the foam area around the goggles might look a bit classier than straight foam, but there’s less give in it meaning that the fit isn’t great. This means that light leakage from outside is noticeable both in the form of reflections on the lenses and from the relatively- large gaps which you can look through at the sides - which can be a bit distracting. However, more than this, the lack of give in the foam married with a single headstrap means that the headset needs to be quite tight to avoid falling down. But making the headset tighter puts pressure on your eyes and that makes things go blurry. We actually preferred using the Zeiss and 3SIXT headsets as they were more secure, comfy and enclosed – they also worked fine with the rest of the Daydream system. But it’s a minor thing - there’s no deal-breaker here.

The Daydream headset looks good but the single strap and hard, contoured edge means getting a snug, light-proof, not-too-tight fit is difficult.
The Daydream headset looks good but the single strap and hard, contoured edge means getting a snug, light-proof, not-too-tight fit is difficult.

But that’s just the physical element of this setup and it’s borderline irrelevant in the potentially-world changing innovation brought about by the controller wand and software.

The Daydream wand

The Daydream wand controller is the key element of the system. It enables you to interact with virtual worlds.
The Daydream wand controller is the key element of the system. It enables you to interact with virtual worlds.

The wand is simply a small, rechargeable Bluetooth device with sensors, buttons and a touchpad - not unlike a Wiimote. Anyone who has used the hand sensors provided with the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive VR systems will immediately be impressed. Whereas those systems require hardcore PCs, an expensive headset and a sensor array that needs to be installed in a room, the Daydream does basically the same job with none of that. We’d like to say it’s less accurate, but it’s not by much and re-centering it when it gets out of alignment is a cinch. There’s a trackpad at the front that you use with your thumb. This can be used to swipe through menus or navigate an avatar around a map – amongst other things. There’s a Back button and a Home button below this and – Hallelujah! – a volume rocker on the side (no more fiddling with buttons obscured by headset clasps).

We see the power of this device from the opening setup tutorial…

Google Daydream software

The tutorial runs for a few minutes but it’s one that will delight and surprise you. Clicking on a moving butterfly by aiming the controller (which acts like a pointer) is one thing, but using it as a torch to illuminate animals in a dark virtual forest is quite something else. It’s amazing and puts you in mind of some of the casual games and VR demos from Steam.

The setup tutorial is fun to do. On the left we're told to click on the butterfly using a pointer system not unlike in a lecture theatre. On the right you move the beam of light around the dark forest like a virtual flashlight.
The setup tutorial is fun to do. On the left we're told to click on the butterfly using a pointer system not unlike in a lecture theatre. On the right you move the beam of light around the dark forest like a virtual flashlight.

And things only get more impressive from there.

In the next demo we learn how to play fetch with an arctic fox in a museum exhibit. Mind you we found throwing the stick took A LOT of practice.
In the next demo we learn how to play fetch with an arctic fox in a museum exhibit. Mind you we found throwing the stick took A LOT of practice.

We've seen impressive star chart apps before but now we can be part of a fully-interactive planetarium with Star Chart VR.

The left side of the screen lets us spin the solar system around by dragging it as part of the setup tutorial. The right side is a shot from a star mapping VR app.
The left side of the screen lets us spin the solar system around by dragging it as part of the setup tutorial. The right side is a shot from a star mapping VR app.
The navigation screen is fun to use. You point and select or swipe the touchpad to move through menus.
The navigation screen is fun to use. You point and select or swipe the touchpad to move through menus.

Meanwhile Google's Street View has evolved into something wonderful. Using the controller to navigate around landmarks, like the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu, really does give you a sense of what it's like to be there and walk around. We loved walking up to the famous Indian temple and looking up at the towers. It gives you a real sense of scale of the place that we've not experienced before.

Walking up to the Taj Mahal is something else...
Walking up to the Taj Mahal is something else...
Being able to "walk" along the outside of the temple and look up - navigating using the controller like a kind of virtual white stick - is far more immersive than watching Aunty Doris' old slide show.
Being able to "walk" along the outside of the temple and look up - navigating using the controller like a kind of virtual white stick - is far more immersive than watching Aunty Doris' old slide show.

In more-entertainment-focused apps, Pearl is a cross between a music video, short film and a VR movie. You're sat on the dashboard of a car watching a father and daughter go through life while a song plays. You can look wherever you want while it happens. It's very immersive.

Pearl is a VR musical short film and it's fantastic.
Pearl is a VR musical short film and it's fantastic.

In some apps you can use a virtual keyboard.

A virtual keyboard from Street View VR app.
A virtual keyboard from Street View VR app.

The potential for experiencing live and historical events is off the charts. While this isn't new in the world of VR, we suspect that Daydream will popularise the practice and dramatically improve quality going forward.

A more immersive way to experience music.
A more immersive way to experience music.

Next: The best part, worst part and conclusion

Page Break

The best parts

It was only back in July that Nvidia launched its VR Funhouse carnival-games on Steam. Many people marvelled at it and made noises about dropping two grand on a VR installation for their home just to play it.

Now, here we are playing Wonder Glade and it's, cough, virtually the same thing on your phone! It's enough to make you wonder if you really do need a monster PC VR system (actually you do need one because they're still amazing). Nonetheless, games like this mean Daydream can open up the world of sophisticated VR to the non PC Master Race (or Playstation VR pe...ople).

Our guide flies around Wonder Glade and we follow him using the trackpad to control the kid with a balloon. Tinder House isn't quite what you think it might be though...
Our guide flies around Wonder Glade and we follow him using the trackpad to control the kid with a balloon. Tinder House isn't quite what you think it might be though...
Tinder House is reminiscent of the far-more powerful Nvidia VR Funhouse: here you put out fires with an interactive hose.
Tinder House is reminiscent of the far-more powerful Nvidia VR Funhouse: here you put out fires with an interactive hose.

We've also seen some impressive puzzle games.

Mekorama VR lets you use the controller as a large, flexible stick to adjust a 3D world and solve puzzles.
Mekorama VR lets you use the controller as a large, flexible stick to adjust a 3D world and solve puzzles.

It's also worth mentioning that Daydream launches with a heap of content in the form of specially-made apps and content on YouTube VR. There's plenty to get your teeth into. You can even watch movies like at a drive-in cinema.

The Worst Parts

The phone (in our case a Pixel XL) can get very hot when using the system (not surprisingly) and it's naturally a battery vampire. However, we didn't struggle for range of motion when we were both plugged into the power and headphones at the same time. When things got a bit too hot, a message popped up asking us to cool the phone for a while - so at least it's unlikely to explode without warning.

There are also the motion issues. This immersive movie which involves watching a hostile alien crash into earth made our stomachs churn very quickly as we followed it down stairs and around corners without physically moving. Ugh. It's hard to see content like that catching on.

How to make your stomach churn - add movement to a Virtual Reality scene while you just sit there.
How to make your stomach churn - add movement to a Virtual Reality scene while you just sit there.

At present there's not a great web browser or photo viewer. The only photos from our library that appeared were the panoramas that we'd shot, but they came out all low-res. You'll also struggle to get onto your existing favourite VR content sites... for now. So if you want to make the controller wand interact with pornhub content, you'll likely have to wait a bit longer.

If we were being pernickety, not being able to buy the controller separately is a bit annoying as we'd rather people had a choice of headsets - few people's faces will match Daydream's hard contours.

Conclusion

While the mass-popularisation of Virtual Reality may set some alarm bells ringing - especially for anyone who has watched the Black Mirror episode, The Entire History of You - which even uses the same controller - the potential here is mind boggling. This level of VR immersion and interactivity rivals what we've seen on hardcore PCs up until now. It's quite possibly world changing as the entertainment and educational potential is off the scale. Not only that, there's enough content already to make this a perfect Christmas present for people of all ages.

And things are only going to get better - a bigger audience means more apps and more interactivity. We already saw people having virtual fights with each other in a VFC demo last week. Now the possibilities for virtual social connections and collaboration are extremely high and it's more accessible than ever.

Another controller is the obvious next step, but for now, the only thing more exciting than what Daydream offers at launch is its potential for the (near) future.

If you were umming and ahhing over whether to buy a new iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus, it's worth taking a good, hard look at the Google Pixel XL because Apple doesn't have VR at this level and we don't expect Google Daydream to appear on the Apple Store anytime soon. It's just a shame that, for now anyway the Daydream only works with the Pixels but we expect it to be pushed out to Android sooner rather than later.

At $119 (for Aussies) it's a steal. If you've been wondering what to get people you care about for Christmas (assuming they have a Pixel phone), get them this. It's as simple as that.

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Zeiss VR One Plus Virtual Reality headset review
Google Pixel XL full, in-depth smartphone review: Phones just got smarter
7 Best VR demos at PAX
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