I was nine years old when Nintendo Power sent me a VHS tape advertising the new Mario game on the N64. It blew my mind that you could control a character in such a fluid, 3D space. While watching the video, I remember actually turning to my friend and saying, “It’s too bad we’ll never get to try something as cool as that.” Oh, if only I knew.
About twenty years later, we started see advertisements for VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. 29 year old me, again, thought, “Wow it’s too bad I’ll never get to try anything as cool as that.”
Then within about two years of that, we started to see VR headsets for phones. Like many people, I thought VR headsets for phones would be a cheapened VR experience. A fun diversion, but nothing more.
For the most part, this is true. I did try a cheap VR headset on a year old phone. It was interesting, but the head movement tracking was too slow and choppy to be at all immersive.
This all changed when I got my Google Pixel. When I opened the daydream app, the tracking was butter smooth, but it didn’t work with my headset and I didn’t have a remote to control the menu.
In a shamefully short amount of time, I went from thinking of phone VR as a distraction that’s just a waste of money to clicking accept on my Google Daydream purchase. I’ve now had a week with my Daydream headset with my Pixel phone, and here’s my review in short: It’s (expletive) awesome.
With the right kind of phone and headset, phone VR is not a poor man’s VR experience. This is the real deal. That being said, here’s my review at length:
What is Daydream?
Many people seem confused on what exactly Daydream is. That’s because it’s actually two things. First, there’s the Daydream headset/remote combo, though it’s technically called the “Daydream View.”
Second, Daydream is a unique app which functions as a menu and a full platform for daydream compatible VR apps. When you have a compatible headset and remote and all that jazz, Daydream sets you down in a VR menu, from which you can select, purchase, and play other VR apps.
There are plenty of VR headsets on the market which cost significantly less than the Daydream headset, including Google’s own Cardboard set which runs about $15. What you’re paying for with the Daydream headset is not only the comfortable headset and high quality lenses, but also the bluetooth connecting Daydream controller. I suspect over half the cost of the Daydream derives just from the controller itself.
Real Virtual Reality
As I said before, the smoothness of the VR experience in Daydream blew my mind. What surprised me was when I tried non-Daydream VR apps on my Pixel, the experience wasn’t quite as smooth.
I later learned there’s a reason for this. VR demands huge performance from the GPU. This is why my previous phone felt choppy in VR. But that immersive smoothness I found in Daydream on my Pixel wasn’t just thanks to hardware. There’s software involved too.
Opening Daydream enables coding that switches your phone into VR mode. This causes your phone to halt certain other processes and throw virtually every available resource into the VR experience. The result is a real VR experience that is achieved so close to the peak of our modern technology that only the top end phones can achieve it by overclocking themselves.
Still, at times I wonder if Google didn’t jump the gun a little. Only the absolute tip of the top end phones are able to achieve this immersive VR experience, and even those phones run extremely hot if they’re running VR for more than 20 or so minutes.
I chose the Pixel insted of the Pixel XL because I don’t like the feel of large phones, and I’m luckily I made that choice. Reports online show that the Pixel XL has major overheating problems with VR. Fortunately, Google built a heat warning into Android so it will stop the app if your phone is running dangerously hot. Still, again, it makes me wonder if our Daydream hasn’t pushed our imagination beyond what our technology can achieve.
At the end of the day, even if it isn’t an experience that can last for hours, it is a hell of an experience. Let’s talk about what you can do.
Just because an app has VR, does not make it Daydream compatible. I’m no programmer, but from what I understand, apps have to be built specifically for the Daydream platform in order to be compatible. I suspect this largely has to do with the Daydream controller and with enabling VR mode on the phone.
Once in Daydream, I would split apps into two main categories: things you play and things you watch. Let’s start with play.
There’s not many games yet, but then again, how many games do you typically have on your phone? Prices range from $1 to $15. If you think $15 is a crazy amount to pay for a phone app, I can only imagine you’ve never gone street racing in VR before.
Fortunately, there’s also a host of free games and many of them are quite good. My favorite is called Moatboat. It’s a creation sim that uses voice commands. As you pull the controller up to your mouth, a megaphone appears in front of you. This trigger your phone to start listening for voice commands.
You can then start building ecosystems by saying things like, “plants make berries, rabbits eat berries, rabbits breed, foxes eat rabbits,” and so on. Or you can go post-modern by saying things like “rabbits float, rocks float, rocks eat rabbits,” and so on.
While this is going on, you can view it from the sky or you can go down to the ground and be among your creation. I’ve spent a lot of time in this game and I still discover something new every time I try it. It makes very clever use of the VR experience.
Now on to things to watch. These are the apps I spend most of my time with, which surprised me because I’m a huge gamer. But the viewing experiences, in my opinion, are the real selling point.
Viewing type apps range from YouTube and Netflix to the news to movie shorts to your own panorama photos.
You can throw your phone into any VR headset and watch some YouTube videos, but not like you can in the Daydream. For Daydream viewing apps, it sets you down in a virtual cinema. The image stays static in front of you, as if it were on a screen.
It’s a small touch, but it adds a huge amount of immersion. It legitimately feels just like watching a movie at the cinema, where your eyes dart around the screen as different details appear. Some apps, like Netflix VR, go a step further and decorate your VR space. Netflix VR sets you down on a cozy red couch in a cottage in the mountain, with a huge screen displaying your movie in front of you.
Those are all for standard videos. However, there’s a whole host of 360 degree videos designed for VR. From documentaries, to YouTube videos, to movie advertisements, these experiences are amazing. It’s like those VR modules at arcades that move you up and down as the image on the screen moves up and down. You really start to lose yourself and feel a level of immersion you’ve never experienced by watching something on a screen.
I’ve found the most immersive, however, to be looking at my own panoramic photos. I travel a lot and I’ve always taken panoramas and 360 photos just to remind myself of places that were meaningful for me.
When I first viewed these photos in Daydream, it took my breath away. It’s easy enough to lose yourself in a 360 degree fantasy video. But it’s much easier to lose yourself when you’re looking at a photo in VR of a view that you yourself stood in at some point in the future. Words can’t do it justice, but it triggers something in the brain that really puts you back in that exact moment when you took the photo.
I guess that’s really the essence of it. It’s not just another screen to view media. VR is an entirely different way to experience media. It’s an experience that’s new to us, and that’s why it’s exciting.
Quality VR will become standard on phones, I suspect even within the next couple years. But if you want to experience the future now, the Daydream offers you high quality VR right now. I highly recommend it.