A remote control is something I never thought I’d get excited about. And yet, for Google’s new Daydream View virtual reality (VR) headset, the included remote makes all the difference, and singlehandedly turns it into the best mobile VR headset yet.
That’s admittedly a low bar, since there have really only been a handful of serious contenders in this space, with one being from Google itself. The search giant played a big part in establishing mobile VR as a category when it introduced Cardboard a little over two years ago.
Made literally out of cardboard, the viewer required users to insert their own phones as displays to watch 360-degree videos and VR experiences. It was a fun way to get started, but also decidedly low-tech. Samsung upped the ante a bit when it introduced Gear VR later that year, and perfected the experience with a consumer version a year ago. There are also dozens of cardboard clones and VR headsets from Asian mobile phone manufacturers like Xiaomi and LeTV –but none of them has been able to really advance mobile virtual reality.
Enter Daydream. Introduced in May as an Android-based platform for mobile VR, Daydream is Google’s attempt to write the next chapter for mobile VR. Eventually, Google wants to collaborate with a number of handset manufacturers to sell Daydream-compatible Android phones and Daydream VR viewers. For now, there’s really only one phone you can use to experience Daydream, which is Google’s own Pixel phone. And this week, Google released Daydream View as a first companion headset, to be used with the Pixel, as well as future Daydream-ready phones.
Daydream View costs $80, and looks a lot less technical than Samsung’s Gear VR. That’s in part due to the cloth cover, which makes it look a lot more like a comfy shoe than a computer. But it’s also because Daydream, unlike Gear VR, doesn’t require users to plug their phones into any plugs or adapters. Instead, the phone just gets sandwiched into the viewer, and held in place with an elastic rubber band. One has to wonder how all of this holds up to regular usage, but during the week that I had to test a unit supplied by Google, it worked like a charm.
Daydream View also comes with a small remote control that features a clickable trackpad as well as two buttons and a volume rocker, which is the real differentiator. Samsung’s Gear VR has a small trackpad integrated on the side of its housing, which I frequently find hard to use. The Daydream View controller on the other hand feels a lot more natural and really only has a small learning curve. Its primary function is to work like an air mouse — think Wii remote. But thanks to the touch pad, it can also be used for scrolling, and a home and an app button help to quickly navigate back and forth and to access extra options.
As for available content, that’s a bit of an achilles heel of Daydream. Google has said that it wants to have more than 50 apps and games for Daydream available before the end of the year. Right now, the line-up is still very slim. In addition to Google’s own apps, including YouTube VR, Street View VR and Google Photos VR, there are apps from the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and a few others. There’s also about a dozen games, including a number of puzzlers. I found some of them entertaining for a while, but was hard-pressed to find that one game or experience that I’d want to show everyone who is curious about the headset.
But while the apps and games were just so-so, they did hint at a lot of exciting possibilities, thanks again to the Daydream remote control and the way Google uses it for interaction. Google’s Streetview VR for example allows users to navigate through 3D photos by allowing them to point with the remote to navigational hot spots. In other apps, the remote could be used to spin objects, or even scale them up and down. All of this by itself made it a lot easier to navigate through those apps, but it could also allow developers to build a lot more immersive 3D worlds that allow users to look at objects from all sides without any of the positional tracking that high-end VR headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are using.
In essence, Daydream View shows a lot of potential, with a slightly boring present. Should you buy one? Right now, that’s really only a question that owners of a new Pixel phone have to ask themselves. But if you do own one of these phones, and are even remotely interested in VR, the answer is clearly yes.