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Google’s Daydream Isn’t The iPhone Of VR—Yet

Google’s grand attempt to standardize virtual reality still doesn’t solve its most fundamental UX problems.

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I’ve shown so many friends and family virtual reality for the first time that I’ve begun to feel like a coach. Whether it’s Samsung’s Gear VR or the HTC Vive, my job is the same. I shadow them the whole time as if they’re blind luddites, hitting all the right buttons, pulling all the right straps, and occasionally backing them away from a wall. Because there’s no VR system out there yet that feels like it wasn’t built in someone’s garage by an engineer, rather than designed around all the human factors that come with strapping a $1,000 computer on your face.

Daydream VR is meant to solve all of this. Designed by Google, a company that’s been on a design roll with its new Pixel phone and Home voice assistant, the Daydream View is supposed to be the VR headset for the rest of us. Its mix of hardware-software standard could be embedded in every Android manufacturer’s phone, ensuring the entire VR industry will build games and experiences to the same spec. And, just as importantly, it's the most polished-looking headset we’d seen yet. All you have to do was latch in your phone, stick the soft, fabric-coated device to your face, and escape reality as easily as loading Netflix on a Roku. Daydream even comes with its own motion control remote, serving as a laser pointer, a fishing rod, or anything else you could imagine. It seems like the Wiimote for VR, for an estimated half a million Android developers to reference as a standard.

The Google design team just seems to get it, with a firm understanding of the tiny human factors issues that made VR stink. They’re already thinking about bullying in VR, let alone dealing with headset ergonomics and how one should load VR apps. Plus, priced at $79, the Daydream headset/controller was cheap. So far, only a few million high-end VR headsets have probably been sold. If Daydream were half as successful as Chromecast, Google could feasibly move many millions of Daydreams to break all existing sales records of VR headsets.

Then, I actually tried Daydream. And it's still the most accessible decent VR system on the market. By that I mean it’s the best way to try an experience that feels like virtual reality. But it’s not the singular, unifying vision that this industry needs if VR is really going to take off. It’s not the iPhone moment of VR. Not yet, at least.

All Of The Little Things

It’s hard to pinpoint any one failing of Daydream. Rather, it’s every little pain point sticking you until it aggregates into a pin cushion.

The gray fabric device looks so eminently touchable, like the weeknight sweatpants of VR. Then you hold it in your hands, and you feel the plastic frame underneath. You pull on a little bungee band to unlatch the front to place your phone inside. But you’d better have made sure to wipe the screen for thumbprints first. And it doesn’t actually click or fit. Instead, you just sort of line up the phone and pull the bungee back to secure it all. The fit is remarkably tight, and Google automatically aligns the screen perfectly through tiny capacitive knobs you don't even notice inside the headset. No doubt, this entire solution accommodates Android devices of all sizes. And yet, the rubber-bandy solution all feels like a very polished hack—not something that costs about $100.

While strapping the Daydream to your head, you may realize, like I did, that you’d forgotten to load the Daydream app first. So you disassemble it all, open the app, reassemble it, and continue on. Why not make VR load automatically when inserted into the headset? That’s what Samsung does with the Gear VR, and it makes sense.

To tighten the headset, you pull on two straps behind your head. It’s easy enough, but it will catch your hair as you do so. (Oculus sidesteps this by putting the strap tightening on the temples of the headset, rather than within the mop of your head.) More damningly, Daydream leaks light in through the sides—it doesn't mold properly to my adult-sized head. This means there’s an omnipresent glare on the image. You can get used to it, but you’ll need to close the curtains on a nearby window or it will wash out your view at the wrong moment.

I know I can’t just hand this to someone and have it work. Daydream requires explanation just to get it working on your head. I'm still a coach.

Inside VR

Daydream greets you inside its app launcher—which is set-decorated as a fantastical forest or crystal-filled cave. It sounds cheesy, but this effect is quite grounding. Google has made clever use of what architects call "liminal space," the go-between transitional areas that separate ordinary life from, say, worship in temples or competition in baseball stadiums. For example, you never just walk through the street entrance of a church and find yourself at an alter. There’s always a transitional area—a liminal space—in between. It's the same thing inside Daydream, which creates liminal space through these lovingly designed launcher environments.

The picture itself is the sharpest, most colorful I’ve ever seen in a VR headset. Though the lenses do warp the image, and 360-degree videos still manage to look like blurry first generation YouTube clips (the latter point just requires a lot more resolution to fix than LCD screens have just yet). Game graphics are good enough, and smooth enough, to feel properly immersive if the art direction favors chunky polygons that benefit from lower fidelity images.

And Google’s own apps really shine in VR. Exploring the Pyramids of Giza or Macchu Piccu through Google Street View is fantastic, the sort of I almost feel like I’m there! sensation you can’t get through a computer monitor. To walk, you just aim your remote and tap on the nearest shining orb that you want to teleport to. (It sounds weird, but it works.) Another surprise was Google Photos in VR. You can literally be placed into a picture you took years ago and look around. And while it’s a touch hokey, I know, it was good enough to make me feel the pangs of a vacation gone by. I just wish Google Photos didn't require me to pull off my headset, update the desktop app on the phone, then go back into VR to get it working in the first place.

If there’s a single big limitation of the interactive experience, surprisingly, it’s Daydream’s controller. In theory, it's the perfect way to navigate VR. The controller is a pointer one moment, and the next, a means to shine a flashlight, balance the ground of a marble maze, and even pull back a palm tree to launch coconuts into the sea.

But its Bluetooth connection had interference, or unpaired constantly. It’s a bit laggy. The touchpad on top, which works like a mouse, isn’t all that sensitive. And while it can sense the direction you aim, it can’t sense depth. That might not sound like a big deal until you’re spinning a 3-D model with the equivalent of a virtual yard stick, and you want to reach into it to point to a specific spot. How do you make this poke gesture? You can't. And you feel a bit like a fly hitting glass.

Just like voice control, gesture controls only work when they’re perfect every time. Anything short of that, and you just want a dumb, dependable button to hit.

That said, the remote does one great thing that every VR system needs to copy. With the push of one button, it re-centers the screen in your view. That means you can use VR with a lot less neck craning than competitive systems, or simply lay back on a couch to watch Netflix floating overhead. Daydream places its world around you.

Tough Love

As a fan who so firmly wants to see VR become a stupid-simple, "strap it on and go, Grandma!" experience, and as a design writer who understands just how much effort was put into Daydream to get it this far, it’s hard to criticize what people within Google have built. And in a sense, the minutiae about the headset itself is less important, as third parties are free to make headsets to the Daydream spec. Getting hardware manufacturers to agree on a VR standard was likely Google’s more important coup—for this year, at least.

But I’m still anxious to see where Google could take this. Right now, the experience of Daydream VR is good, but not so good that it overcomes all the awkwardness of VR itself for the mass market. Yet if Google figures out how to squeeze in full, automatic room mapping—which the team teased to me earlier this year—Daydream could scale beyond a VR seated experience in your chair to a way to actually walk through VR worlds that live as another layer in your apartment or house. And if Daydream can do that, what’s stopping Google from mixing virtual reality with augmented reality, leveraging Daydream to put holograms into the world around us, like a cheaper Hololens or Magic Leap? Give people something like that, and suddenly, who cares about a few thumbprints on the screen and a little pulled hair?

Indeed, while Daydream is not the solution to VR that many of us hoped it would be today, that has laid the groundwork for a momentous industry standard tomorrow. Google's first foray into VR, Cardboard, shipped 5 million headsets, and it’s been installed 25 million times. Daydream is better. It’s standardized at the hardware and software level. And as soon as the concept of a Daydream-ready phone becomes as common as an Android phone, Google could offer hundreds of millions of people the opportunity to experience decent VR by default. That sounds nuts, but there are 1.4 billion Android active phones on the planet today. If Google commits to Daydream for just a few stubborn years, it could scale big by sheer default.

Now, it’s on Google to keep iterating, and ensure that when people do try VR for the first time, it’s an all-around fantastic experience that gets them coming back—something as simple and satisfying as daydreaming itself.

[All Images: via Google]

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