Google’s Daydream View VR headset sells for $79 and comes with a remote control. You have to have a Daydream-compatible phone such as Google’s Pixel.
I’ve recently been testing the Daydream View virtual reality headset from Alphabet’s (GOOGL) Google division, and though many aspects of it are impressive, it is no more ready for primetime than are existing low-priced VR headsets such as Google’s “Cardboard” viewer and Samsung Electronics (005930KS) “Gear VR.”
You can buy Daydream on Google’s site for $79.
Daydream works much like Cardboard: you stick your smartphone in a compartment of the headset and strap the headset to your face and view the phone screen through two lenses in front of your eyes.
I tested Daydream with Google’s recently released “Pixel” smartphone.
The good parts of Daydream View include the fact it feels better than Cardboard and Gear VR and others in terms of the materials touching your face. It’s relatively more comfortable. And the headstrap is easier to adjust for the right fit. And it comes with a little remote control that’s useful for moving through the VR world.
Drawbacks are the same
The same basic drawbacks are here, though. The headset is clunky and heavy. This really should be like a pair of glasses. Instead, it always feels like a strange box strapped to one’s head.
The screen is not sharp enough. The 5.5-inch screen of the Pixel has what’s called “QHD” resolution, which means 2,560 pixels by 1,440 pixels. In this case, that adds up to 534 pixels per inch, significantly sharper than many other phone models. (Full specs for the Pixel on Google.)
But when the screen is crammed up against your eyeballs, you still see images that are not really that sharp. The matrix of pixels, in fact, is all-too-evident. In short, nothing actually looks smooth and seamless, as one might like.
Spending time in this world of blurry, granulated pixels is not a fun activity over long periods of time.
Where’s the chaperone?
An even bigger problem, still, is that VR is not just solitary, it is resistant to any collaborative kind of interaction between the person wearing the headset and anyone outside the headset.
What that means is that there’s no way to hand the headset to someone who has never tried VR, and to walk them through it, the way you can show someone a personal computer and help them navigate with mouse clicks.
You can, of course, describe to someone what they should be seeing through the headset, and you can instruct them how to point at things with the remote.
But this works only up to a point. Without seeing what they’re seeing, it doesn’t really work.
Flashes of brilliance
When Daydream apps work well, the results are phenomenal, but still lacking in some crucial ways.
One of the finest examples of what can be done, no surprise, is an app from Google. It’s called “Google Arts & Culture.” You find yourself standing in a spare, empty gallery space with one wall displaying a menu of art collections, curated with help from major museums.
I clicked through “Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces,” which was put together with the help of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, about the artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder from the 1500s.
You see a menu of pictures by Bruegel, and when you click on one, it expands to take up the wall in front of you. You’re still standing in the same empty gallery space, so there is, indeed, a feeling of being in a location where your attention is focused, however bare that place is.
As you click with the pointer, parts of the painting enlarge to great detail, letting you see right down to the brush strokes. An audio guide can be turned on to talk to you as you look. I looked for awhile at the masterpiece titled “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” from 1562, depicting the battle of St. Michael and the angels against demons as told in the Book of Revelation.
As you gaze at the painting, zooming in here and there, and panning from one part to another with the clicker, the feeling of expansiveness, of the top and bottom and sides of the painting, looming over your head and extending below you somewhere down to your feet, truly is grand. Potentially, this is a superb way to transport a person to an arts encounter.
View of Bruegel’s “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” as seen through Google Daydream View.
The limitations are always there
But, Google Arts & Culture reveals some of the limitations of VR at this point.
For one thing, something as particular as a painting makes painfully evident, more than with fast-paced action video games, the pixels in Daydream, the coarseness of the screen resolution where virtual reality falls apart. To look at this kind of detail for a long time, you need much “realer” reality, if you will.
Take, for example, a picture like Jean-Étienne Liotard’s wonderful “Portrait of Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone at Seven Years,” where it’s possible to zoom in to see the details on the child’s features.
This is, again, valuable. But as you come closer to the actual brush strokes, it becomes particularly clear that the screen is not really sharp enough to be comfortable with the most minute details of texture.
In fact, the closer you get, the more the painting looks like a bit of a blur, which is not comfortable to look at. The immediate impulse is to want to lean into the painting to get a clearer view, as you would in an actual gallery. But, because this is all virtual, leaning in does nothing.
Jean-Étienne Liotard’s “Portrait of Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone at Seven Years,” detail, seen through Daydream View.
Limits of the virtual
This brings me to the final point, and an intriguing one: Leaning in and not seeing a change in resolution is one aspect of Daydream’s lack of real space.
Although the headset tracks your head movements, the world as rendered doesn’t really cooperate with many aspects of physics, such as the resolving power of your eyesight as you come closer to an objet.
I’m convinced, though I can’t prove it, that such lack of real physics is one of the sources of nausea that can happen with VR. At least one person to whom I showed the headset experienced nausea. I did not, which suggests to me that over time, one’s brain acclimates to the fake physics of VR. Or it may just be an individual difference of physiology.
Of course, none of this may matter to die-hard fans of VR. But if Google and Samsung and others hope to spread usage to a broader audience, then making “casual” applications like Google Arts & Culture pleasurable is vital to that goal.
At any rate, Daydream is a nice upgrade from Cardboard, but it affirms my sense that it will take years more of investment and innovation by Google and others to get this stuff to where it’s really ready for a mass audience.