Today marks the launch of Google’s high-end Android VR platform, Daydream, a major step beyond Cardboard and a serious competitor to Gear VR.

Google has been playing in the VR space since 2014 back when they launched the Cardboard initiative, a super low barrier starting point for VR which let people pair any modern smartphone with a $15 headset literally made out of cardboard. The company hoped Cardboard would act as a stepping stone to introduce people to VR, but it also proved to be a stepping stone for the company itself to become more deeply involved in the space.

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Enter Daydream, a reimagining of Google + VR which promises to close the gap between the not-so-great performance of Cardboard and the impressive capabilities of the Oculus & Samsung backed Gear VR. Cardboard still exists, but Daydream is what we hoped Cardboard would be all along: a high quality VR experience that’s baked into the core of Android.

‘Daydream’ isn’t a single product, it’s Google’s umbrella ecosystem for high-end mobile VR, under which falls Daydream ready phones, headsets, and apps. You’ll need one of each to unlock the high-end VR capabilities of Android 7.1 ‘Nougat’. While the company’s grand vision is to one day have a healthy set of choices when it comes to Daydream ready hardware, today the only options are the company’s Pixel and Pixel XL phone along with the Daydream View headset, the latter of which launches today for $80, undercutting the latest Gear VR headset by $20.  Unlike Gear VR, which is controlled optionally via a touchpad on the side of the headset or a gamepad, Google has added a basic motion controller with an accelerometer as the required method of input for all Daydream apps.

Summary

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Google’s Daydream, with Pixel phone and View headset, is a powerful opening act for what the company ultimately hopes will be an entire ecosystem of VR devices on Android.

Daydream is, at this stage, a noteworthy competitor to Samsung’s Gear VR which has dominated the mobile VR landscape ever since its launch. The seemingly simple addition of a basic motion controller as a core part of the Daydream experience adds significantly to interactivity and ease of use in a way we wouldn’t have guessed.

It’s still day zero for the platform, which begins with a humble launcher experience and just a handful of games and apps, but Google has laid a clear foundation for what could turn into a sprawling ecosystem with multiple phones, headsets, and a healthy app marketplace.

Of the Daydream games out there right now, there’s nothing truly gripping, but when you consider the incredible immersive experience you’re getting out of a simple controller and a mere phone stuck inside an inexpensive headset, there’s a rather compelling argument to look at Daydream as a sort of game console replacement for the digital native generation who is growing up with smartphones as primary gaming devices.

As developers learn to make new and interesting games that take advantage of the simple motion input, we expect to see titles with more staying power. But for now, the full featured YouTube VR app officially from Google makes it easy to browse a growing library of videospheres and a massive library of traditional videos. Many a’virtual viewing hour will be burned inside YouTube VR; we just wish we could invite our friends to join us, as Daydream is currently lacking any compelling social VR experiences.

While the headset has some distracting glares (due to the headset’s otherwise smart adaptable design), few other notable visual downsides, and a slightly smaller field of view than its competitor, Daydream View performs admirably, far exceeding Cardboard’s capabilities, and matching that of Gear VR in many ways, including visual sharpness.

At $80, Daydream View is a compelling proposition for any Pixel owner, a no-brainer gift for kids who like gaming, and a must-have for Pixel owners who are already VR enthusiasts.

Is it worth choosing your phone just on the proposition of Daydream? If you’re already an Android user, it’s definitely a compelling tug in the direction of the Pixel, but Samsung’s draw to a Gear VR compatible phone could be overriding thanks to a more extensive content library at present. If you’re on iPhone, Daydream isn’t enough to jump ship for the other side just yet, but you might catch yourself looking over in envy.

Not enough detail for you? Enjoy our 3,600 word deep dive below.


Setup & Experience

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With the Pixel XL in hand, getting started with Daydream and the View headset took just a few minutes. After unboxing the headset and controller, I launched the pre-installed Daydream app which ran me through a few updates to some VR services and other background software, and helped me effortlessly pair the Daydream controller and then gave it a wireless software update to the latest version.

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From there, launching Daydream is as easy as placing the phone into the headset (which is automatically detected thanks to an NFC tag), and pulling shut the elastic latch to launch into the Daydream experience.

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Putting the headset on, you’ll be greeted with a ‘home’ space which takes the form of a Daydream app launcher set upon the background of a cartoon forest with a distant waterfall, flowing stream, and chirping birds. If you’re like me, you’ll immediately hit the Play Store button to start exploring what Daydream apps are available.

At launch, Google is releasing five first-party Daydream apps, with another five coming from third-parties. At present we’re actually seeing 19 Daydream apps available, but it isn’t clear if some of them are early-access. If not available to all right at launch, those extra nine apps will be launching soon anyway, among some 40 additional apps that will hit the platform by the end of the year.

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Navigating through the Daydream app store with the headset on was a breeze; it’s amazing how much—with the addition of a simple IMU-based motion controller—more natural the user-interaction is with the simple point-and-click interface of Daydream, compared to Gear VR’s awkward head-mounted touchpad (or even a gamepad). With the Daydream controller in hand, you get a simple laser pointer with which to make your selections, and a touchpad to quickly swipe through lists and text.

The ‘Daydream app store’ is actually just the same Google Play Store that everyone on Android is already familiar with. This is great because it’s the same content channel that users know, and comes with the same capacity for reviews, descriptions, and a robust updating system to allow developers to improve apps over time. In VR, the Play Store looks a bit different of course, but you’ll definitely recognize it and breeze through the app install process which is as simple as ‘see app, want app, install app’.

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At the outset, Daydream apps are varied, but the choices are little thin. The ecosystem will come into its own as more Daydream apps become available, which should happen in significantly greater numbers in early 2017 as Google opens the door beyond select partners to all developers.

Launching apps is a similar affair; a tap of the Home button on the controller returns you from the Daydream Play Store to the main launcher where you can see a list of recently used Daydream apps or open your entire library. To launch, just point and click.

The Daydream experience is a massive step forward compared to Cardboard; everything runs better, the graphics are richer, the controls are more intuitive (and so far, much more consistent in their functionality), and the entire experience is pulled together in a more cohesive way under the umbrella of Daydream, compared to Cardboard apps which can’t be downloaded or launched from within VR.

Continue on Page 2 “Hardware”

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  • David Herrington

    Incredible review! Thank you for taking the time to shine a light on the unknowns related to this product line. I never would have even considered buying something like this in the past but you have done such a good job dispelling some of my questions that I may in the future!

  • Darian Skarica

    How does it compare to the tracking/latency of Samsung Gear VR?

    As Samsung Gear is also in sub 20ms latency, is there any difference in that regard between platforms (Daydream and Samsung VR)

    • benz145

      Performance (including latency) is comparable to Gear VR (comes under that critical threshold of 20ms to make the VR world look really solid).

      • Darian Skarica

        Thanks for the answer
        As Gear VR has additional hardware that reduces the latency below 20ms, I was afraid weather or not Daydream can follow. I’m glad it can, as from my perspective if would be a deal breaker

  • Just about to head to bed, but skimmed it very quickly to find the detailed I looked for… still only 60 Hz! But! You do mention it seems as if the low persistence is less effective, perhaps they increased the duration the screen is on to reduce the flicker? I see clear flicker in the GearVR in semi-bright scenes so this 60 Hz business has me squirming.

    • benz145

      Interesting hypothesis, could be the case for sure. Tough for me to say since I’m usually not prone to flicker.

      • CazCore

        i’m glad to hear your case of flickering cleared up

  • Val

    There is no way for content makers to benefit from ad based YouTube and a dependence on internet bandwidth…

  • Graham J ⭐️

    Good review. The motion-ish controller is a great idea, I wondered some time ago why no one was using these even though I’ve seen smart TVs with such a controller.

    A small correction: The Pixel XL’s screen is 2560×1440. Unfortunately the 5″ version is only 1080p, robbing it of the PPI throne held by the 5.1″ Samsung S7.

  • VRgameDevGirl

    You could technically put almost any Android in the headset and use the cardboard app. Right?????

    • You could but without Android 7.1 Nougat on the phone you might as well be using a much cheaper headset or even cardboard itself. I’m hoping that Nougat gets rolled out pretty quickly to other current phones to allow them to be used with Daydream.

  • Mateusz

    Without onboard IMU the number of compatible phones will stay very limited imo

  • JR

    Very informed and helpful review, thanks.

  • CazCore

    i was hoping the library of cardboard content would also work with this, but, it sounds like it doesn’t?

  • Cy James

    As a previous GearVR user with Note 5, I was in a situation where I had to look at a getting a new mobile solution with my Note 8. Either upgrade to the new GearVR, or check out Google Daydream.

    I figured I would give DayDream a try since it is google and support should be great. Also, not having to remove the case on my phone to insert it into the DayDream was a major plus.

    But I have to say, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. The apps I found didn’t interest me (admittedly, a personal taste thing) , and the environment didn’t feel as high quality as the samsung offering. If I remember correctly at the time it was also missing a web browser?

    Add to that It didn’t seem to perform as well, there were frame rates issues and stutters at times that was just enough to give me a case of queasy stomach.

    I ended up taking it back and paying more for the newer gear VR for my Note 8.