Using your phone for VR is about to get a lot better.
Using Google Cardboard is awesome for brief glimpses into the virtual world, but Samsung and Oculus showed us just how capable a smartphone can be as a VR system with the Gear VR. Google's answer is Daydream, a higher-end platform taking all the lessons learned from building Cardboard to create a more cohesive virtual experience. Their first headset, Daydream View, takes the recently announced Google Pixel and puts it to work creating this new experience. Here's how that new setup compares to the existing smartphone-based VR systems made by Oculus and Samsung.
The core of a good smartphone-based VR headset is comfort and ease of use. Samsung has had three generations of hardware to work on these challenges, and in the latest Gear VR, there's been a great deal of success. Gear VR is now wide enough to handle people of many different head sizes with glasses, and the software is designed such that you need only unlock your phone and stick it into the USB port to launch Oculus Home.
Google has taken this process and simplified it even further. The NFC connection to launch Daydream Home is wireless, so you'll only need to lay it in the fold and close the latch to launch the software. It's a small added convenience, but one that decreases initial setup frustrations and allows the platform to support many different kinds of smartphones.
Daydream view is also smaller, lighter, and offers a nearly identical space for those with glasses. Google accomplished this by making the external padding more open on the sides, instead of creating a total seal around your face like the Gear VR. The downside to Google's design can be found in the way light enters the headset from the rear since there is no seal there. Samsung has worked hard to use matte plastics and remove as many light sources as possible so the Gear VR experience is fully immersive. Daydream users are unlikely to have the same consistent experience with the View headset.
That having been said, Daydream View is significantly more comfortable to wear than the Gear VR. The focus on fabric for most of the body makes the headset feel nice, but the real advantage is the strap. This single strap makes the headset feel just as secure as the Gear VR, without the use of rough plastics and rigid tightening mechanisms. Daydream view can be loosened with a firm pull, but the strap is elasticated enough that you shouldn't have much problem getting your fit. It's a night and day difference when wearing these two headsets, due largely to the strap being used.
Samsung's Gear VR is also noticeably larger and slightly heavier than Daydream View. The use of rigid plastics means the headset is durable and easy to clean, but it also means it's less convenient to take on the go. While the Daydream View headset has a real light bleed problem that could be bad for some users, the focus on convenience and comfort make it a worthy challenger for the Gear VR.
Oculus has had the benefit of time with the Gear VR, and that time has lead to a store full of lots of apps and games. Daydream isn't able to lean on Google Cardboard quite as much for software support, as these new Daydream experiences represent a significant jump in quality. Daydream Home has its own dedicated menu much like Oculus Home, a virtual world with virtual rules that allow you to stick around and enjoy yourself for a while instead of peering in with a cardboard box on your face. That means you need to give users a reason to stick around, and to do that Google is leaning on their existing partnerships. Hulu, HBO, and Netflix will launch alongside a handful exclusive games and apps, with the promise that 50 partners have already pledged support by the end of the year. Coupled with third-party offerings published through the Google Play Store, it's possible Daydream Home will have close to a quarter of the Oculus Home offerings by the beginning of 2017.
Daydream may be the newer platform here, but the potential for it to be more comprehensive in a very short time is apparent in every flick of the wrist.
Google is hoping YouTube and Play Movies will be an additional draw since there's no official YouTube app on Gear VR and 360-degree browser video is awkward at best. The YouTube VR experience for Daydream is already one of the best-made video players for VR, which you'd expect given Google's grip on the project. In this respect, there's really nothing Oculus can do to offer a matching solution. With more people publishing 360-degree video to YouTube every day, it's an interesting feather in Daydream's cap.
Perhaps more important than the way Google and Oculus have chosen to lay out menus is the way they're interacted with. Google's Daydream Controller is just overall more convenient that the touchpad on the side of the Gear VR. The controller acts like a laser pointer for most apps and is a functional gamepad for other experiences in Daydream. Oculus has the user point with their face and tap the side of the headset to make a selection, which by comparison is tedious. It's also a great deal more limiting when playing games, leaving many looking for an appropriate gamepad to fill the gap. Daydream may be the newer platform here, but the potential for it to be more comprehensive in a very short time is apparent in every flick of the wrist.
Daydream view undercuts the Gear VR pricing by $20, which is a bigger deal than it may seem. While few people will quibble over $99 vs $79 if they've already decided to get a VR headset, the Gear VR isn't a complete experience until you've spent the extra money on a gamepad. There are games in Oculus Home that require a gamepad to function, and many others that are greatly improved by the addition. This puts the total cost of a Gear VR closer to $150, which is a great deal more than what you are spending on the Daydream View with the Daydream Controller included.
It couldn't be clearer that Google's aim is to compete directly with Samsung and Oculus in this space. Daydream View isn't going to work exclusively with their own phones, but rather with all Daydream Ready devices. Daydream View is cheaper, lighter, more comfortable, and just plain better looking than the Gear VR. It's also less immersive, more prone to cosmetic damage, and the available content won't compete with Oculus Home for quite a while. In many ways, Daydream Home is the best thing that could have happened to the Gear VR. It means competition in this space is about to increase dramatically, which is great for all VR users.