It’s been more than two years since Google showed that you could transform a smartphone into a virtual reality device by placing it in a headset made of nothing more than cardboard and lenses. Sure, Google Cardboard isn’t as powerful or versatile as an expensive VR device like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. But it’s a heck of a lot cheaper, and in the past few years we’ve seen many apps, games, 360-degree videos, and other content released that you can experience using a phone and a Cardboard-style headset.

Now Google is launching a new platform designed to kick things up a notch. It’s called Daydream, and its still a 2-part system consisting of a smartphone and a headset. But this time you’ll need a Daydream-ready phone with low-latency, low-persistance display and a Daydream-compatible headset and wireless controller system that gives you new ways to interact with VR apps.

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The first Daydream headset comes from Google itself: the Daydream View is a $79 headset designed to work with phones like the recently launched Google Pixel… and Google loaned me a Pixel XL and Daydream View that I’ve been testing for the past week to prepare this review.

So does it live up to its promise? Mostly.

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Daydream View is more comfortable to wear than a typical Cardboard headset. The new Daydream home screen and app launcher makes it easier than ever to interact with VR and 360-degree appps and experiences. And the motion controller provides new ways to play games, move through virtual environments, and generally do more than just stare passively at 360 degree content.

But in some ways Daydream View feels like a teaser for higher-performance virtual reality systems that can track your motion, allowing you to walk, swim, or float through virtual environments in a way that you just cannot easily do when using a smartphone-based VR system.

As a $79 smartphone accessory though, Daydream View is a lot more affordable than a $600 Oculus Rift + an expensive gaming PC. And if nothing else, it provides an amazing way to watch movies on a virtual theater-sized display or experience an entirely new type of interactive, 360-degree cinema.

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Hardware Overview

Like Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, and any number of third-party devices (Hello View-Master VR!), Google’s DayDream View headset is basically a device for strapping a phone to your face. There’s not really any way to look cool while wearing it. But coated in a soft fabric cover, you can at least feel comfortable while wearing it.

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Unlike most Cardboard viewers I’ve used, Daydream View is also roomy enough to let me wear glasses with the headset without the sides of the device scraping or pinching my frames.

The headset has a stretchy, adjustable strap on the back that allows you to place the device on your head and tighten the strap until everything stays in place. This is in stark contrast to Google’s cardboard specifications, which did not include a strap. The message? While Cardboard was designed for brief experiences, Daydream View is meant to be worn for extended sessions.

Daydream View can work with phones with different screen sizes: it currently supports both the 5 inch Pixel and 5.5 inch Pixel XL. Google loaned me the latter for purposes of this review.

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Just undo the latch holding the front panel in place, drop in your phone, and close it up again. If you have a Daydream-ready phone, your mobile device should automatically recognize when it’s been inserted in the headset and bring up the Daydream launcher app.

There’s also an elastic band on the inside of the front cover that you can use to store the motion controller when it’s not in use.

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Speaking of that controller, it’s a small stick that you can hold in one hand while using Daydream View. There are are volume buttons on the side, a home button in the center, and an app button above it, allowing you to perform app-specific functions.

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At the top of the remote is a touchpad that you can swipe with your thumb to move a cursor or take other actions, or click. It took me a little while to realize that the touchpad is actually the button you click most often in most apps. The main purpose of the home button was re-centering the screen (with a press-and-hold) or going back to the home screen (with a click)… something I accidentally did more times than I’d care to admit until I got used to the button arrangement.

Once I got the hang of the remote, I found the light-weight controller fairly easy to use with the headset. It’s handy that there are so few buttons, because you can’t look down at your hands when wearing a Daydream View device: the headset blocks out nearly all outside light.

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The remote has a USB Type-C port on one end, which you can use to recharge the built-in battery.

When you first use Daydream View, you’ll fire up the Daydream app on your phone and follow the on-screen instructions for pairing your phone with the controller. Then just drop your phone into the headset, close the cover, and slide the headset in front of your eyes.

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The Daydream app will bring up a tutorial that explains how to adjust the headsets so you can see better (basically shift it up or down on your face, you shouldn’t ever have to worry about moving the phone left or right, since Daydream View automatically centers the image based on the position of your phone in the headset), and teaching you how to use the controller.

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One thing to keep in mind about Daydream View is that since it uses your phone as a display, you’ll probably constantly be putting opening and closing the headset to insert or remove your phone. Both the plastic hinge and the elastic band that secures the front of the headset seem pretty sturdy and should last a long time.

But you may also want to keep a cloth handy to wipe down your phone. Tiny dust particles or other items that you might not notice on your phone’s screen after taking it out of your purse or pocket can be highly visible when viewed through the headset.

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You may also want to keep a set of headphones handy. While the Pixel XL’s speaker is loud enough to hear while interacting with most VR apps (it is only inches from your ears, after all), some apps take advantage of spatial audio which will work best if you’re wearing headphones.

Daydream View is the first headset to use Google’s new platform, and for now it’s the only one that’s available. But we could see future Daydream-compatible devices from other companies in the future, and they should all have some of the same core features including similar controllers, in order to make sure that apps designed to work on one Daydream headset should work with another.

So let’s talk about some of those apps.

Software and apps

Within moments of unboxing the Daydream View demo unit Google sent me, I found myself marveling at the immersive world of the… tutorial. Google has put together an app that teaches you how to use use the headset and controller by exploring a virtual forest setting followed by a museum with interactive exhibits. You can look left, right, up, or down and the scenery changes, and the tutorial explains that you can always re-center the navigation by holding down the home button for a few seconds.

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Google also teaches you that the controller can be used in a variety of different ways, as a flashlight to light your way in the woods, for example, or as a hand that can pick up a virtual stick and throw it for a virtual dog to go fetch and bring back.

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You can also use the controller to enter text, using Google’s Daydream Keyboard, which is basically a virtual keyboard that pops up when you need to enter a username, password, search term, or other small bits of text.

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As the images above should make abundantly clear — there’s really no good way to depict that immersive environment in 2D pictures. These are screenshots of what’s actually displayed on the Pixel XL display when I’m exploring those virtual worlds… but you need to be peering at the scenery through special lenses that adjust the focal distance to make it look like you’re really in the same space as those trees, waterfalls, and rocks.

So I’ll do my best to describe the experience in words to go along with these insufficient pictures.

One thing that does become clear toward the end of the tutorial is that while the Daydream controller lets you interact with apps and games in ways that wouldn’t be possible with a simple Cardboard headset, you’re still pretty much stuck standing in the center of the action taking place around you. Turn around in the virtual museum and you can see a hallway leading… somewhere that you cannot go, because there’s no motion tracking to tack you there.

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You can fire up Google Street View to go exploring… but not by “walking” through virtual landscapes. Street View can take you to the Taj Mahal and allow you to move around and view it from all sorts of differnet angles. But to do that, you need to move the motion controller until you select a little white dot and then click on it to sort of teleport to that spot.

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The motion is similar to what you’d see if you clicked on an arrow in the desktop version of Street View, but a bit more jarring because everything is playing out on a big screen in front of your face. And it never quite feels like you’re actually standing in front of the Taj Mahal… it’s more like you’re looking at an enormous picture of it. Street View has the potential to be an amazing app for virtual reality, but right not it feels more like a work in progress.

Other apps do a better job of allowing you to move about an environment. The video game Hunters Gate, for example, allows you to use a touchpad to control the motions of a character running through 3D environments. Rather than a first-person shooter, the game is more of an action/adventure title that has you looking down at a 3D map of the world which your characters navigate.

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Another video game I tried is Mekorama VR, a 3D version of a puzzle game that reminds me a bit of Monument Valley… except the puzzles aren’t quite as much fun to solve, and the game actually seems a little harder to play in VR than it is on a 2D surface.

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The game certainly looks cool in a headset, as you move around the playing area and use the touchpad and motion sensors on the Daydream controller to move pieces of the puzzle and guide your character to the finish line. But I frequently found it difficult to make precise movements using the controller and quickly got bored playing the game.

One thing that never gets old though? Watching a good 360-degree YouTube video.

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Fire up the YouTube app and you can navigate through a collection of VR videos from professional filmakers and user-generated content from anyone with a 360-degree camera.

It’s easy to forget that you’re watching a video as you stand in the center of the a gallery at the Natural History Museum in London looking at an ancient rhomaleosaurus coming back to life and swimming through the suddenly water-filled halls to catch fish.

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Look around in any direction and it feels like you’re there… even if you’re stuck in one space and can’t follow the creature as it moves.

Or check out Google Spotlight Stories for some truly original 360-degree videos that bring you along as the action moves.

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Of course, you can also watch 2D videos ranging from movie trailers to music videos to vlogs. They’ll play on a virtual movie theater screen, and you can adjust the position of that screen by dragging up or down or re-centering the screen. But what most blew me away is just how engrossing a good 360-degree video can be… it almost doesn’t feel so much like a video as an interactive app that you can explore as it plays. Want to spend the hole time looking at the stars instead of the street ahead of you in the video? Nobody’s stopping you.

It’s not a perfect experience, though. Since these are pre-recorded videos, you can look around, but you can’t move around. So when the camera moves, you move with it whether you’re ready or not. And sometimes camera pans can be a bit disconcerting when you’re not expecting them.

I should also point out that the only time I saw a warning message letting me know that the phone was getting too hot and that I should exit the currently running app was when I was using YouTube VR… but I’d also been using Daydream View for about two hours at that point, so it could have been a cumulative effect of trying various games and experiences and not the YouTube app alone that caused the heat warning to appear.

Overall the YouTube experience alone might be worth the $79 price of admission.

I thought I’d be able to say the same thing about the Google Play Movies & TV app… it lets you watch your purchased or rented videos on what seems to be a movie theater-sized screen! For a few minutes, that actually seems really cool.

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But I decided to actually spend a few hours watching a movie this way on one weekend afternoon, and after about 20 minutes I gave up. There are two key problems: first, you can re-center the screen at any time, but unlike the YouTube app, Google Play Movies doens’t allow you to adjust thes creen vertically. So if you want to lie on the couch and watch a video, you have to prop up your head with pillows so that you’re looking straight forward as if you were sitting in a chair.

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The bigger problem, though, is the so-called “screen door effect.” The Google Pixel XL has a 5.5 inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel display. That’s about 534 pixels per inch, which makes it hard to pick out individual pixels when staring at the phone while holding it in your hand.

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Put it in the Daydream View headset, though, and your eyes get a whole lot closer to those pixels, allowing you to actually see the lines separating one from the next. It’s kind of like dragging a screen door to the movie theater and watching videos through it.

Some apps seem to do a better job of minimizing this effect than others… or maybe it’s easier to lose yourself in a 4-5 minute, interactive YouTube video with a bit of screen door effect than it is to sit and stare at a 2D movie for 2 hours.

Anyway, I see huge potential for video VR apps like Google Play Movies, Hulu, and Netflix. But right now, I’m not sure I’d want to spend a lot of time watching TV shows or movies this way.

Other apps use 360-degree views for a new kind of storytelling. The BBC’s The Turning Forest is a somewhat interactive fairy tale-style story told in a way that lets you look around as the action happens… which can be a bit disconcerting at first, when you’re not sure where to look, but which becomes more engaging as the story goes on.

The cartoon-style graphics make it a lot easier to ignore any screen door effect.

The Guardian has also released its own VR app which provides a virtual walking tour of the London sewer system. You move forward by holding a button on the controller, and you can move the control around through the air to aim a flashlight and get a better look at the action.

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Stylistically, the Guardian’s sewer tour is an interesting use of the technology. But the tour itself is kind of boring, since you’re mostly just looking at dark walls.

One of the more compelling apps I was able to try is Warner Brothers’ Fantastic Beasts app, which is a companion to the upcoming Harry Potter prequel.

The app isn’t so much a game as an experience, but it allows you to get up close and personal with some of the eponymous “fantastic beasts” in different environments, while using the Daydream Controller as a sort of magic wand to pick up items, move around, or draw patterns in the air to form spells.

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Fantastic Beasts is a pretty cool way to put yourself into the wizarding world… but it’s the sort of thing that can get old pretty quickly, since there’s not actually all that much to do other than walk around and look at beasts and try to get them to perform tricks like rolling over.

The app serves as an interesting teaser though… it makes me want to play a real Harry Potter VR game. I’m still not sure if I plan to see the movie though.

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For now, YouTube is probably my favorite Daydream VR app, but I was also impressed with some of the educational and entertainment possibilities. The Google Arts & Culture VR app, for instance, allows you to enter a virtual art museum and virtually stick your nose up against famous works of art by zooming in more closely than you ever could in real life.

And WonderGlade features a series of VR mini-games that use the Daydream controller in interesting ways.

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Some apps are distinctly less impressive. WSJ VR seems promising at first glance: you’re in a virtual apartment with a big screen in front of you featuring the latest headlines from the Wall Street Journal. Click on any headline with the Daydream Controller, though, and you basically just get a white screen with black text that’s kind of difficult to scroll through as you read.

While the apartment scene is kind of nice looking, there’s really no reason to use this app to read the news rather than just opening the WSJ app or website on your phone.

If you’re looking for a VR news app that takes better advantage of the medium, CNN VR does a pretty good job of not only giving you a 3D screening room for video reports, but also provides a few 360-degree videos that let you do things like attend a virtual Donald Trump Rally or march along with a virtual march from this summer’s Democratic National Convention or get a full look at the view from the Podium where Hillary Clinton made her speech.

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Some of the content in CNN VR feels a little stale days after the general election, but the app itself shows some promise.

I suspect as the Daydream platform grows, we’ll see plenty of new apps, videos, and other content that truly take advantage of the hardware and software in innovative ways. And we’ll probably also see a lot of poorly executed “let’s take our existing app and make it VR!” offerings like WSJ VR.

Google says some of the apps expected to launch for Daydream by the end of the ear include HBO Go, Hulu VR, Netflix, BBC, NYT VR, and NBA as well as a bunch of games including Danger Goat, Evil Robot Traffic Jam, Gunjack 2,: End of Shift, Home Run Derby, and Need for Speed: No Limits.

One thing that I both like and dislike about Daydream VR is that it’s sort of self-contained. When your phone is in the Daydream View headset, click the home button takes you to the Daydream launcher which shows all of your Daydream-compatible apps, and nothing else.

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The good news is that this keeps you from accidentally existing Daydream mode when you didn’t mean to, or from launching apps that you can’t control without touching the screen.

The bad news is that this means existing Google Cardboard apps aren’t available in Daydream mode unless the developers update their software for the new platform. That means there are hundreds of existing apps, like VR Theater for Cardboard, for example, which should work, but which do not.

I confirmed that you can insert a non-Daydream phone like my Google Nexus 5X in the Daydream View headset and use it like a Cardboard device. VR Theater works just fine on my Nexus 5X. But even if I try to load VR Theater on the Pixel XL before inserting it into the headset, the app will close and Daydream home will launch as soon as I close the door on the headset.

Verdict

Daydream View shares some DNA with Google Cardboard, but the headset is more comfortable to wear, sturdier than most Cardboard models, and designed for extended viewing sessions.

The Daydream Controller provides a whole new level of interactivity, making it possible to throw virtual objects, move through virtual environments, move virtual game characters through a playing field, and generally do things that aren’t possible with most Cardboard apps.

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And Google’s hardware requirements for Daydream-compatible phones make it clear that the company is focusing on devices with high-resolution displays, fast response times, support for high-definition video rendering, and the ability to allocate the resources necessary for a high-quality VR experience.

For a phone-based virtual reality system, Daydream View certainly feels like next-gen tech.

But it is still a phone-based VR system, which means it relies on your smartphone’s screen, display, and battery to provide immersive experiences. And sometimes it falls a bit short.

Motion tracking in Google’s system allows you to look all around you, but a room scale VR system like the one that comes with HTC Vive lets you move your whole body through physical space for a more holodeck-like experience.

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And while Google requires Daydream-ready phones to have screen refresh rates of at least 60 Hz, both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift support 90 Hz for smoother visuals. Those higher-priced systems are also designed to work with powerful gaming PCs, which means you have a lot more horsepower for rendering graphics.

That said, there’s one major thing Daydream View has going for it: the $79 price tag makes it way more affordable than the systems offered by HTC and Oculus, which sell for $600 to $800. If you already have a Daydream-ready phone, it doesn’t cost much to give Google’s new VR platform a try.

It’s an affordable way to get into virtual reality… even if the experience isn’t quite as impressive as that offered by high-end, PC-based systems.

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Many of the apps and games I’ve tested so far feel like brief distractions that are cool to try once, but which you’d hardly expect to return to over and over. Maybe that’s another distinction between a phone-based VR system and one designed for PC gamers: developers are probably putting a lot more effort into creating $50 PC games than they are into free or cheap Android VR games.

But I did find at least one killer app. YouTube VR easily provides hours of entertainment thanks to a plethora of existing 360 degree videos, not to mention the millions of 2D videos that you can watch with the app. And new content is being added all the time.

If the only thing you ever use Daydream View for is watching 360 degree YouTube videos, I’d still consider it well worth the asking price.

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But it’s unclear at this point if Daydream compatibility is going to be a common feature for upcoming Android smartphones. Right now it’s easy to think of Daydream View as a $79 accessory for a Pixel smartphone… but those phones have prices starting at $649, which makes the phone+headset bundle rather pricey. I’m not sure 360-degree videos are quite cool enough to justify buying a Pixel instead of a cheaper phone that’s not compatible with Daydream.

We might see more affordable Daydream-ready phones in the future though. And we’ll certainly see more Daydream-compatible apps, games, video players, and other experiences soon. Seven new apps hit the Play Store a day ahead of the official Daydream View launch, and many more are expected to join them by the end of the year. We may also see third-party Daydream-compatible headsets in the future.

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So the price may be variable, and the content selection is growing. If you’re not willing to spend $79 + $649 for the ability to experience a small set of VR experiences today, you may be able to spend less and get more in the future.

If I had decided to purchase a Pixel phone after finishing my review last month, I’d seriously consider spending the money on a Daydream View headset. But since it only really works as a Cardboard-style phone holder with my Nexus 5X, I’ll probably just consider Daydream support as one of the factors when choosing my next smartphone.

It’s worth noting that Daydream View isn’t just competing with high-end VR systems like the Rift and Vive. It also goes head-to-head with Samsung’s $100 Gear VR. Today there are far more Gear VR-ready apps than there are Daydream-ready apps, but that could change in the future. Gear VR also only works with Samsung phones, while Daydream will eventually be supported by a number of Android devices (although on day one, it’s pretty much a Pixel exclusive). And Samsung’s headset has a touch panel built into the headset itself, while Daydream includes a handheld controller.

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