Google seems to have solved every issue I had with an entry-level VR headset. It still worked with your smartphone (well, if you had a Pixel, for now) but it was, well... beautiful.
Its strikingly clever, lightweight, fabric-based design and fancy-looking controller had me making grabby hands during the Google event when it was announced. Well, now I have had it in said hands, strapped firmly to my face, did it live up to expectations?
What Is It?
Let's start with the $119 Daydream VR's design. Look, I know this is weird -- but it feels like a shoe.
Not a cheap Kmart special, but a fancy sneaker engineered by scientists wearing labcoats and worn by Kanye West in a motivational 360 interactive video. If the Gear VR is a Dunlop, the Daydream VR is one of those Nikes made from cork. It even comes in fancy sounding colours. "Slate", "Snow" and "Crimson" certainly beat out "Dark grey", "Light grey" and "Red with grey flecks in it."
It is light, soft, breathable, flexible and adjustable. The elastic strap around your head has a rubber interior over your temples to avoid slippage. And the part that touches your face is stuck on with velcro - so you can remove it and wash it. Handy if you want to avoid conjunctivitis and face herpes* from sharing your headset.
Despite becoming used to VR units like PlayStation VR - which has multiple bands to hold it in place - the single strap on the Daydream VR feels secure. In order to get the focus right I had to wear it quite high on my head, and it did feel a little unbalanced as a result - most of the pressure was on my forehead, while under the eye area felt a little loose. That could just be my tiny head and required line of sight, though - your experience may differ.
The controller - a very cool touch that makes the experience feel more high-end - slides right into the visor cover when not in use, so you never lose it. This definitely came in handy. And the controller itself is simple to use. A brief calibration exercise as you for up Daydream gets you acquainted with how it works, and away you go.
You can swipe across the screen, select items, go back home and re-calibrate your curser or view as needed. I needed to calibrate the curser quite a few times, but the process was simple and non-obtrusive - especially since it only really happened when moving to a new activity or in a menu screen.
You can use it as a pointer, a bat, a wand, tilt it to navigate a maze - whatever the program you're using requires. I spend far too long than I like to admit using it to play fetch with an Arctic Fox. I have no regrets.
I used the Google Pixel XL with the Daydream. It slides in the front, then is secured with an elastic catch at the top. The XL seemed a touch large for the space provided, but the regular Pixel would be a perfect fit. One thing of serious note - the Pixel XL heated up significantly while using it in the Daydream VR - fast.
After 15 minutes of use it was like trying to touch a hot steering wheel in a car on a 40 degree day. The heat made the unit warmer on my face and meant that longer viewing times became pretty much impossible for me to enjoy without the distraction.
That being said, the screen on the Pixel is stunning. The graphics and tracking are a lot more advanced than I've experienced with a smartphone-driven VR set before. We're not looking at Vive framerates here, but it's still a smooth ride.
I tried both the audio from the phone speakers (turned up with the volume buttons on the controller) and a headset. Both worked perfectly fine, but obviously a headset provides a far more immersive experience.
So what can you actually watch and play with the Daydream? YouTube, for starters. After accessing the YouTube VR app, I promptly went skydiving. There are a number of creators you can access on the app - PrankVsPrank, Meredith Foster, ColleeHumour, Tastemade and UnboxTherapy are among them.
So it's not all diving with CGI sharks. Google are pushing this as a general entertainment headset, especially with a dedicated Play Movies app - plus Netflix coming soon. While we wait for Netflix, every film and TV show in the Play Movies catalogue is available right now to watch in VR, right in your face. It's simultaneously amazing, and a bit much.
Then there's VR while touring the Taj Mahal. Yes, seriously. This is Google, so Google Maps' Street View is available in VR now. It's beyond awesome. There's also a bunch of apps on the way offering "experiences" like swimming with dolphins and visiting Pluto. We're talking New York Times VR, Wall Street Journal VR and Guardian VR as well.
- Comfortable and well designed
- Responsive controller
- Great price point
- Huge amount of content
- Will only work with the Pixel - for now
- Issues with ventilation - it can get hot to wear
Games get a look in, too. Playing on the Daydream feels intuitive, it's genuinely a lovely experience - and the controller is great. Fantastic Beasts and Need for Speed are among the titles coming soon.
Early reviews of Fantastic Beasts paint it as a classic Harry Potter-style game, with the controller acting as a wand and you exploring fantastical environments. I'm a little more curious as to how Need for Speed will work.
Should You Buy It?
I'm genuinely excited for what the future holds with this headset. It's comparatively a joy to wear -- heat aside -- and the sheer amount of content Google have access to make this for me the most significant step towards VR becoming "mainstream" since the super accessible cardboard. Provided they open up access to other models on smartphone reasonably soon, that is.
At $119 Google's Daydream VR is affordable, comfortable, high-quality, well-designed and a whole lot of fun. Cool the Pixel down a little, and Google have pretty much nailed it. It's a clear step up from the Samsung Gear VR, but don't go in expecting the experience of a HTC Vive or Occulus Rift. Bottom line: you get what you pay for. But the Daydream VR is a bargain.
*may not be a real thing.