Google Daydream View Review: Google’s second virtual reality headset is a significant refinement on 2014’s Google Cardboard and throws motion controls into the mix too. But does it have the potential to change the face of mobile VR?
Google Cardboard was an intriguing 20% side project that pushed a spotlight back onto virtual reality in 2014, alongside the likes of Oculus and early iterations of the Rift headset. Since then we’ve seen dozens of companies invest huge amounts of time and money into developing new hardware and software to flesh out the world VR. Google’s taking another crack at building upon the foundations it has already laid with Cardboard by launching a new VR platform and a headset to go with it; the Daydream View.
Design and comfort
Whilst there’s no denying that the View still looks like a VR headset, the aesthetics don’t fall on tropes you’d typically associate with technology. Instead, it borrows more heavily from the fashion world with a flexible plastic body covered in dappled dark grey fabric that looks like it’s been cut from Gap’s latest winter collection.
As such the softer, cleaner appearance renders it more sculptural and organic than notable rivals like Samsung’s Gear VR headset. The details too follow suit, with an elasticated leather tab to keep the front closed in place of a spring lock or a plastic latch and even Google’s ‘G’ insignia is set into the side of the View in rubber, so it too moves and flexes with the rest of the headset.
On the inside the breathable foam that surrounds the lenses is comfortable against the face and removable by way of three Velcro strips so that you can hand wash and spot clean it as needed, a feature that we’d appreciate more manufacturers take note of, especially as more experiences arrive to keep users within the VR universe for longer periods of time.
In actual usage, the single flexible head strap is attached high up against the sides of the View’s body, changing the weight distribution and how the headset sits against your face versus similar offerings. Instead of resting on your cheeks and pushing down, it’s closer to a low-tech emulation of the mounting system used by the PlayStation VR. Sliding the two plastic tensioners together or apart makes for a simple and easy way of adjusting the View to sit comfortably on most users’ heads and as there’s no focus wheel, simply tilting the headset up or down a touch is enough to help reach focus.
Whilst wearing the View, the gapping around the nose proved to be a notable distraction, letting excess light in, pushing us to play in darker environments to achieve greater immersion, but overall it’s a markedly more comfortable headset to wear than practically every other VR viewer we’ve tried over long periods.
The smartest aspect of the View’s design has to be the door on the front. Much like Google Cardboard, it folds down so you can place your smartphone on it and the hinges at the base of the door can extend to allow larger, thicker devices or those with a case – a notable issue with offerings like the Gear VR and Cardboard.
The View’s controller is a small rounded pill-shaped piece of lightly textured, dark grey plastic. It’s extremely lightweight which helps prevent fatigue over long-term use, but it doesn’t feel particularly premium (likely justified by the Daydream View’s notably low price tag). Your thumb does most of the work; swiping across the clickable circular touchpad at the top, press the app and home buttons beneath it or changing the volume using the rocker on its right side. Not unlike Nintendo’s Wii controllers, the real hook is that the controller can also track basic tilt, rotation, and orientation in 3D space.
When not in use, the controller simply slides in under an elastic strap set into the inside face of the headset so that it won’t readily get lost. It’s just worth noting that Google doesn’t include a power lead in-box, instead pushing you to use the Type-C USB adapter that came with your smartphone.
As the name suggests the Daydream View only supports Daydream-compatible handsets, which right now falls to just two smartphones, Google’s new Pixel phone and the Pixel XL. The setup process is pretty seamless, provided you’ve got NFC and Bluetooth switched on, and you’ve already downloaded the Daydream app from the Play Store.
Pairing phone to headset is easy enough thanks to an embedded NFC chip in the door on the front of the View that automatically launches the Daydream app when the two come into contact. What’s more, the rubberised grips around the lenses help align everything, so you don’t have to faff around with centring the imagery in both eyes before you get stuck in.
So long as it’s charged up, long-pressing the controller’s home button should start it up and pair it to your smartphone automatically too, although we were left wondering whether this experience would prove as seamless with handsets from other manufacturers once they arrive.
The Google Pixel phone and Pixel XL are both powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 821 flagship processor and 4GB RAM. As such, general performance is rock solid most of the time, with flawless tracking as you move your head around, offering smooth experiences, both active and passive.
Prolonged use does however cause significant heat build-up, to which the phone will alert you, usually foreshadowed by a noticeable dip in performance as frames drop and general usage starts to stutter (or you can always touch the phone itself to see whether you can fry an egg on it), but this doesn’t creep in until about 30 minutes of continuous use – plenty of time to enjoy most of the experiences currently on offer before taking a break.
Whilst we solely tested the View on battery power alone, the design of the headset means that none of your phone’s ports are obscured, so you can easily plug in a power lead and headphones whilst you’re using it if you’re planning on taking longer continuous jaunts into VR land.
Speaking of battery, the Pixel XL’s 3450mAh cell dropped by less than 20 per cent after 30 minutes of mixed use, meaning you’ll seldom find yourself in enforced downtime waiting for the phone to charge back up, or have to worry about making it through a full day of general smartphone use if that includes some time with the Daydream View.
The larger, higher resolution display on the Pixel XL is unquestionably the preferred weapon of choice for use with the View right now, as the field of view on offer is already relatively narrow (as if looking at everything through a porthole), rendering the viewing experience offered up by the smaller 5-inch Full HD panel of the standard Pixel too cramped.
Adding a handheld controller into the mix is the undoubted feather in the cap for the View’s user experience, setting it apart from most other mobile VR offerings out there. It boasts easy to understand and responsive physical controls as well as motion tracking. Bringing handheld motion and gesture control into the VR space opens up a world of possibilities for new means of interaction and means you aren’t tied to gaze-based or tilt-based experiences alone (although they’re still present on the View in some for or another).
There are a myriad of factors that may affect performance, but it is important to remember that, as there are no external tracking sensors or cameras, the motion controller is nowhere near as accurate as the HTC Vive’s controllers or even the PlayStation Move controllers.
You’ll often find yourself reorienting your body or the VR world around you (with a long-press of the home button) as both headset and controller position drift. This issue seems more prevalent in games where bigger and more vigorous movements take place. Particularly wild hand flailing reveals latency issues with the controller too, but general interaction, for the most part, is reliable.
Software, games and experiences
We had a week with the Daydream View ahead of launch and were initially limited to a dozen or so experiences, both passive and active. There are offerings for 3D and 360 video playback from the likes of YouTube VR, which now includes commissioned content, educational offerings like Google Street View and Google Arts & Culture, and of course, a host of games.
Google’s interface is relatively easy to navigate (perhaps more so than the Gear VR’s) with the ability to browse your library or peruse and purchase new VR experiences from the Play Store without needing to take the headset off. The most notable shortcoming is any real form of connection back to your phone. Aside from a single screen that lets you check the date and time, re-centre the View and so on, you can’t pull off voice commands via Google Assistant or action notifications in any meaningful way.
By the end of the year the company has promised over 30 new VR offerings tailored to Daydream VR and since launch that list has already started to take shape. One of the headline acts is an exclusive tie-in experience to upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, whilst games like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes are staples worth investing in.
There’s nothing revolutionary right now, but if the experiences offered up by Google Cardboard were the company’s first steps into VR, the Views growing roster shows that it’s starting to hit its stride.
Google’s Daydream View is an imperfect, but excellent second-generation mobile VR offering. The company has been able to leverage a sizeable pre-existing body of content as well as attract a vibrant and fast-growing developer community who are proving that they can create engaging experiences that use the View’s hardware to the best of its ability.
Like Cardboard before it, the Daydream View attempts to make virtual reality more accessible but at the same time offer more refined, premium experiences than its predecessor. The attractive design, easy setup, simple but powerful control scheme, tight native integration with Android and low price of £69 (cost of Daydream ready phone notwithstanding) render the View one of the best mobile VR offerings out there right now. If you’re already a Samsung Gear VR user, you aren’t missing out on all that much, but for everyone else Daydream and the View look to be a smart platform to get behind in the long-term.