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A week with Google’s Daydream, why Facebook should be nervous

Daydream is the platform, View is the headset, we explain it all

Daydream, Google’s new VR platform, isn’t a product in the way we think of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, or even the Gear VR.


It’s a set of standards for both phones and headsets that are designed to deliver a comfortable, inviting and mobile virtual reality experience. The View is just the first headset to launch for the platform, and for now the only phone that is Daydream-ready is Google’s Pixel. Which is a pretty great phone, if you’re in the market.

The Daydream View in action
Jeff Ramos/Polygon

There will be other Daydream-ready phones, although no specific models have been announced yet. There will be other headsets from other companies that conform to the Daydream spec but may look different or target different markets.

But today we’re going to talk about the View, Google’s first-party attempt to define what a Daydream headset can be, and the Daydream platform. It’s a bit of a strange product when compared to other virtual reality headsets, but Google’s dedication to virtual reality is impressive. Cardboard is already the most widely-used virtual reality platform in the world, and this is the next step up from those inexpensive, and in some ways unimpressive, entry-level viewers.

This isn’t a scored review because Daydream is likely to be a variety of devices very soon, and we didn’t have access to a large variety of software before launch. But we’re going to dig deep into the system, share some thoughts and try to explain Google’s next big step into higher-end VR.

So ... how is it? And what is it?

The phone is doing all the work

"There are a few key things," Relja Markovic, the engineering director of VR at Google, told Polygon. "The viewer doesn’t have any active electronics in it, so when you put the phone in the viewer the phone basically detects the viewer using [near field communication]. So that’s the core signal that says ‘oh, OK, I should be thinking about going into VR now."

The View also includes two capacitive nubs on the inside of the headset, and the Pixel senses where those touch the screen and figures out how the phone is resting in the viewer in order to align the image correctly. There is nothing to fiddle with or connect directly; you just put the phone in, the VR mode kicks in, and the image is perfect every time.

My only problem with this system is that sometimes the headset didn’t seem to recognize the phone, so I had to remove it and put it back in. This happened rarely enough to not be a huge bother, but often enough that it’s worth noting. I also had to manually close the VR application on the phone after removing it from the View, it never seemed to know when to go back to standard phone mode.

A Pixel phone going into the View
Google

This is a very different approach than the Gear VR, which includes its own electronics to decrease the latency of the Samsung phones that powered it, while also offering a touch pad for built-in controls. The issue of latency is what makes Cardboard viewers so hard on the stomach at times; the view lags too far behind your movements due to the viewers’ dependency of the hardware in the phone that powers it.

The View is a cloth and plastic shell with a set of lenses and a wireless controller, and that’s it. The Pixel is doing all the heavy lifting to make virtual reality possible.

"The Pixel is just the first of many Daydream-ready phones," Markovic explained. "We actually have certification requirements for things like the display to make sure it’s capable of certain low-persistence output modes. The [inertial measurement unit] isn’t just any old IMU, but actually meets very specific tolerances for precision and refresh rate."

My god it's fast
The only phone, at the moment, that’s Daydream-ready. The Google Pixel. | Jeff Ramos/Polygon

Daydream-ready phones also have to meet or exceed certain minimums in terms of graphical performance in order to perform well under the strain of VR applications.

So the View’s job is to tell the Pixel to go into VR mode, and then hold it comfortably near your face. There are no electronics or sensors involved in the headset itself, which will make it easier for other companies to release their own take on what a Daydream headset could be.

At Daydream’s launch, however, Google’s View is the first and only option. Let’s dig in.

The View

Google likes to describe the View as being inspired by things that you wear, and it absolutely looks like a pair of sweatpants for your face. It’s covered completely in cloth, with a squishy, removable and hand-washable mask that presses against your face. There are no cables or anything needed to connect, you just remove the controller, drop the phone in and go.

Google sent us a Pixel XL to use with the device, and it looks a bit silly when connected, as if it doesn’t quite fit. But the auto alignment system works well, and you always get a good view of what’s going, even if the phone is slightly askew. The front plate actually slides away from the rest of the headset using some clever extenders on the bottom, so it will be able to fit a wide variety of phones, or even a Pixel that’s using a thin to moderate case. It’s a nice touch.

The Daydream View | Jeff Ramos/Polygon

It’s also comfortable as hell. The squishy front mask plays nice with your glasses, to the point where I never even noticed I was wearing vision correction while in VR — a nice change from headsets like the Rift that often force you to fumble with your glasses when you put on or remove the headset — and the pressure is distributed evenly around the face once you fiddle with it a bit to get it seated corrected.

And that moment of fiddling is important; the View, like most VR headsets, has a "sweet spot" that allows you to see the image with maximum clarity. It can take a moment to find that sweet spot — my advice would be to look at text while doing so to help notice the difference — but it should only take you a moment to put it on once you get used to the process.

The design is kind of goofy-looking at first, but it’s also oddly friendly. It’s a piece of technology that invites touching and squeezing; it’s approachable in way many virtual reality headsets aren’t. This is meant to be something you hold and feel, and people I’ve handed it to seem to love playing with it even before putting it on. Even the clasp on top is a stretchy loop with a small bit of fabric to grab onto and hook around body of the headset to close it.

The View’s face mask is squishy, and comfortable
Jeff Ramos/Polygon

I’ve noticed many people are scared to break a VR headset when they hold one for the first time, but I have yet to see anyone treat the View with the same gingerness. My wife remarked that it looked like it was covered with Oprah’s T-shirt sheets, which is apparently a thing. The View seemed like an object of curiosity when I showed it to people; everyone wanted to hold it and feel the cloth and play with the top clasp. Google did a great job creating VR hardware that seems playful, and anecdotally people are responding to its unorthodox looks.

The View’s faceplate also both hides and holds the system’s controller, which is a nice detail that makes the controller harder to lose. That’s a good thing, because that controller is another way the Daydream View stands out.

The controller

The controller that comes with the View isn’t just the View controller, it’s the Daydream controller. Developers don’t have the option of using a standard Bluetooth controller for their game, nor does the headset itself include a touchpad or any other means of interaction outside of looking around. The controller is it.

The controller slips into the mask for storage | Google

In practice it operates like the bastard child of a remote control and a laser pointer. The bottom button will take you back to the home screen with a tap, or re-center the View and the controller in the direction you’re facing if you hold it down. The middle button’s use is left up to the developer, and the top, indented dish is both a touchpad and a button. There are also volume controls on the side, which is a nice touch.

It’s also motion-tracked, and you see a virtual representation of the controller in the home menu and many of the games, allowing you to point at things you’d like to interact with, wave a magic wand or aim a gun.

The controller is comfortable to hold, and easy to understand | Jeff Ramos/Polygon

You can see one use of it in the user interface for the Google Street View app.

The downside to the controller is that it only offers three degrees of freedom, instead of the six you get with the HTC Vive controller. That means you can point the controller in any direction, or even twist it so it’s facing downward, and the tracking is solid. What it can’t do is move in and out of the game world; it’s not actually a tracked object in 3D space. So in the top right image below, imagine the controller is locked in place, but you can point it in any direction or flip it over to see its back. You can also switch it to left-handed mode in the options.

Searching in Street View | Google
Thumb movement on the pad | Google
The View controller, showing the volume buttons | Jeff Ramos/Polygon

And Google has found some interesting ways to make that controller feel natural. The controller doesn’t actually stay in one place as you move it around the home menu, it slides around as if it were on the surface of a sphere in order to model your elbow. It fakes you into feeling like the controller has more sensors than it actually does, and it’s an effective illusion. "We can give you a really strong sense of a connection with your hand," Markovic told Polygon.

Google also provides developers with best practices for the controller, and helps show them the best ways to model hand movement in their games. "We have a suite of kinda mathematical libraries that lets developers translate ... you give us the context of your app, the controller gives us its state, and then our library adapts one to the other," Markovic explained.

The controller fits snugly in the View when not in use
Jeff Ramos/Polygon

And again, this is the controller for Daydream. Other companies can create and offer their versions of it, but the basic ability and number of buttons will always remain the same. And developers are already finding neat ways to use it; the kart-racing game on Daydream has you hold the control horizontally and turn it to steer, while using the button on the left-hand side for throttle.

The controller also suffers from a moderate amount of drift, and I found myself holding the home button every five minutes or so to re-center the pointer. This will happen often enough that it’s addressed in the system’s first tutorial introducing you to Daydream.

You’ll want to re-center things if you move the position of your arm or hand as well, as the controller works best for most apps and games when you hold your shoulder still and move either your elbow or your wrist. It’s a bit hard to get used, but it does allow for some impressively expressive motions in games that use it well.

So how is it?

The Daydream View is exactly what you want it to be: A higher-end version of the Cardboard platform with a motion controller, lower latency and all the advantages of being created by Google.

I was told they were able to achieve a bit better than 20ms of motion-to-photon latency, which is a technical way of saying it won’t make you sick as you look around the world. The headset is comfortable, even during long sessions, and the controller allows for some interesting interactions while inside games and applications. There’s a nifty welcome application that explains the various aspects of the hardware, and you can revisit the brief tutorial if you want to introduce anyone else to the View.

The YouTube app is pretty slick in virtual reality
Google

And Google gets to flex its software muscles with the launch applications. The Street View app allows you to explore famous places and even warp around them a bit, and the YouTube VR app is one of the best video applications I’ve ever used in virtual reality.

You can watch 360 degree video, which can be blocky messes if you’re not on a fast connection, but standard videos work just as well; you can click and drag the virtual screen anywhere you’d like, while making it bigger or smaller by sliding your thumb up or down on the touchpad. If you have YouTube Red you can also download 360 degree videos and watch them locally as well.

There’s a Google Photos application that can sync to your existing Google Photos account so you can look at your holiday snaps in virtual reality, or you can download the Cardboard Camera application and create your own virtual reality panoramas, complete with a sound clip, to view in your virtual gallery.

Google Play Store App | Google
Google Daydream Home | Google
Google Photos | Google
Google Play Movies | Google

You buy new Daydream apps through the Google Play store, which takes you to its VR section when used in the View, and there’s a Google Play Movies application that lets you watch movies or trailers in a virtual reality theater. If you already own TV shows or Movies you bought through Google play, you can watch them in virtual reality. Many of your Google accounts and services link into the Daydream ecosystem.

I asked about the ability to play local videos or videos I shot using the phone in a virtual theater, and I was told that one workaround is to upload the videos to YouTube in a private account and then download them using YouTube Red to watch them locally. It’s an overly complex solution to a simple problem, but Google also stressed to me that Daydream is an open platform, and we’ll likely see theater apps for local video pop up on the story relatively quickly.

We were able to try a few games in the review bundle of applications that Google sent us, including a VR version of Mekorama, a collection of carnival-based minigames called Wonderglade, and a hack-and-slash type deal called Hunter’s Gate.

More content should be available at launch, which means right now, but we were only given access to a select few games and applications for review purposes. It’s kind of neat to see a 3D representation of the stock market in the Wall Street Journal application, but it’s nothing I can see myself using with any regularity.

These are the early days of the platform, however, and many more applications and games are on the way, including support for Hulu, HBO Now, Netflix and others.

In conclusion

The Gear VR has a serious competitor for best mobile VR platform, and if you’re planning on picking up a Pixel or more Daydream-ready phones are announced soon, the $79.99 peripheral is kind of a no-brainer. Google’s tendrils extending in so many directions gives them a strategic advantage that Oculus, even with Facebook’s support, will likely find hard to counter.

You’ll also notice that your phone will heat up to a slightly alarming temperature if you play long session in VR, and Daydream was designed for long, intense gaming and viewing session. I have yet to see an overheating warning, but the phone will get pretty toasty. There are also no options to adjust interpupillary distance or focus the image, but I had no problems seeing clearly even without being able to fine-tune the optics. I’ll be curious to see if anyone else has problems.

The View with The Pixel | Jeff Ramos/Polygon

Daydream is the platform, View is Google’s own Daydream headset, and Pixel is the only Daydream-ready phone available for the moment. But it’s going to be fascinating to see how the platform evolves and changes as more phones are released and more companies create Daydream headsets.

It’s going to be hard to beat the View, however, as Google created something that’s approachable, easy to use and comfortable. I’m looking forward to the release of a few more apps and games, but it’s easy to recommend the View as a must-have add-on for their Pixel.Babykayak