Google is making smartphone-powered virtual reality a lot more fun and interactive by adding a simple ingredient: a controller.
If you buy Google’s new $79 Daydream View headset, you’ll also get a controller. It’s the size of a Twinkie cut in half, and has an action button, a home button, motion sensors and a touchpad to control characters and scroll through menus. (There’s also a helpful volume rocker.)
In the game “Wonderglade,” I used the controller as a mini-golf putter and a firehose. In Google’s Street View app, I used it to choose where to jump to in 360-degree scenes. The game “Mekorama” serves up movable puzzles you have to solve. The controller becomes a wand for you to point and click where you want your on-screen robot character to go.
It seems so simple, but mobile VR never had such controls. Headsets based on Google’s Cardboard VR designs had one button that worked inconsistently, built into the side of the cheap contraption. Samsung’s Gear VR headsets have a touch panel on the side, but using it is awkward and unintuitive. The Daydream controller feels familiar.
Like the competition, the Daydream View headset’s processing power and screen come from a smartphone placed inside. So far, it’s only compatible with Google’s new Pixel and Pixel XL Android smartphones, which deliver smooth motion and pixels packed far more densely than an iPhone (though not quite as densely as Samsung’s Galaxy S7). In the future, Google says Daydream View and its remote will work with flagship phones from Samsung, Huawei, LG and half a dozen others.
Made of cloth and plastic, the Daydream View headset is soft and pliable. It’s also lighter and more comfortable than Gear VR. And the padding that touches your face is removable, so you can wash it.
Another smart idea: When you’re not using the controller, you can stow it inside the Daydream View headset, thanks to a built-in elastic band.
As good as Daydream View’s controller is, let me be clear: It can’t come close to the level of precision found on more expensive PC and console VR systems, like the $799 HTC Viveand $400 Sony PlayStation VR. But Daydream View costs only $80, it’s portable and you don’t have a funny cable sticking out the back of your head.
There are downsides. VR apps and games will drain your phone’s battery quicker than almost any other activity. And while it is comfy, the Daydream View headset did feel like it was going to slip off during action-packed games. Gear VR has a removable elastic strap that runs over the head. I wish Daydream View had that too.
Google says there will be 50 Daydream VR apps and games available in its Google Play app store by year’s end, and each will work with the Daydream remote. That’s a great start for what is a brand new VR effort, but it’s still far fewer than the 150+ apps and games found on Samsung’s Gear VR. Another downside: Daydream View won’t work with Apple’s iPhones.
Above: Google's Daydream View headset only works with one smartphone for now: the Google Pixel. PHOTO: EMILY PRAPUOLENIS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Despite these limitations, Daydream View is the best phone-powered VR experience so far. (The Wall Street Journal has a Daydream View marketing partnership with Google.)