Living the Daydream: Google’s New VR Platform takes Shape
I’ve been testing hardware that runs Google’s virtual reality (VR) platform called Daydream. It’s a little rough around the edges and is clearly pushing its brand new hardware to its limits. But overall, it’s a pretty good experience and it shows the potential for mainstream VR going forward. That said, my time inside Daydream further cemented my view that VR today is somewhat exhausting, rather isolating, and is best in small doses.
Soft and Cozy Face Hugger
I tested Daydream using Google’s Pixel XL smartphone and Daydream viewer. When Google announced Daydream at its I/O conference, I thought its viewer would have more technology onboard than the Cardboard-based viewers the company had been pushing as a low-cost entry to VR for years. Cardboard viewers are often literally made from cardboard, although there are plenty of nicer ones out there. In reality, however, the Daydream viewer itself has very little silicon inside its fabric-wrapped shell, aside from an NFC chip. This chip alerts the Pixel you’re about to strap it into the viewer, launching the Daydream interface.
There are some key differences between Cardboard and Daydream. Chief among them is that to run Daydream, an Android phone must have the right combination of processing power and sensors. I’ve never been able to use a Cardboard viewer, even a good one, for more than 5-10 mins without feeling nauseous. But I didn’t experience that this time which I attribute to these hardware requirements. Second, the Daydream viewer includes a Bluetooth controller that fundamentally changes how you interact with content inside the viewer. The result is an experience dramatically more intuitive and immersive than any I’ve experienced within a Cardboard viewer.
After you walk through a tutorial on using the remote (which includes two buttons and touchpad area), you can dive right into the content. As you might expect, Google’s own content is front and center with YouTube VR and Google Play store preloaded. I’ve had the phone and viewer for about a week and, in that time, Google seems to have added more content to both. Today, there are about 60 apps available through the store. These include games, streaming apps such as Netflix and Hulu (where you can watch standard videos on a giant screen), as well as VR-specific content aggregators such as LittleStar and NextVR. As you might expect, some of the content is good but much of it is cheesy and gimmicky. There’s no denying that, when you hit upon something cool in VR, it’s a very exhilarating experience.
Is it Hot in Here?
Unfortunately, at least for me, these experiences are still best enjoyed in brief bursts. While Daydream is certainly a better experience than Cardboard, I still find myself limited to a maximum of 20-25 minutes in the viewer. Part of the issue is my eyes and brain just seem to find VR experiences taxing (I’m also not a big fan of 3D movies). Another problem is when the Pixel is working hard it gets hot to the touch. Not warm, but hot, and that heat gets transferred to your face. After a short while, it gets warm enough to be uncomfortable. And when you remove the viewer, you look like a red raccoon.
I’ve yet to stay in VR long enough to have the phone actually overheat. But, on numerous occasions, I’ve had it drop out of VR mode into standard phone mode. It’s not clear if this is a glitch, user error, or a bit of both. But it does necessitate taking off the headset, removing the phone, and starting the process over. Like I said, a little rough around the edges.
There are other basic interface challenges Google and its partners still need to address. For example, it’s possible to log into your Netflix and Hulu accounts through the VR interface but, if you need to look up your passwords in a manager app, you have to drop out of VR to do so (at least until those apps make their way to VR). Of course, should a friend or family member try to talk to you while you’re inside Daydream with headphones on, they’re probably going to have to tap you on the shoulder. This can lead to bigger jump scares than anything that happens in VR.
At the end of the day, that’s my biggest issue with VR: It’s a fairly lonely place. I know Facebook is planning to drive a social component with Oculus and I would expect Google and others to try to do so at some point as well. Maybe these future social elements will change my thinking. For now, VR requires a level of isolation I find uncomfortable. Which means, at least for the near term, all of my virtual experiences will need to clock in at 30 minutes or less.