Whisper it, but we might be on the cusp of a virtual reality revolution. If Silicon Valley is to believed, though VR has been around in concept for decades, this time we really could be only a few years away from the technology becoming an integral part of our lives.
Google’s latest baby steps in this direction is a new Google Daydream View headset and controller, designed for use with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. And I dare-say that it’s making me start to believe the hype.
I think the Daydream View 2 is one of the first plausible products that normal people - not just techies - might actually want to buy.
I’ve previously only had limited interactions with VR. Not being a hardcore enough gamer to shell out over a grand on a high-end gaming PC and Oculus headset, most of my VR experiences so far have been thanks to Google Cardboard, Google’s el-cheapo headset that is literally made out cardboard and a couple of plastic lenses.
Daydream is actually pretty similar to this: You mount the Pixel 2 in the front to use as the display in exactly the same way. The difference is, that for your £99, the headset doesn’t feel like strapping a cereal box to your face. Instead, it is coated in fabric, and has proper straps rather than an elastic band. It’s much more comfortable - which VR needs to be if you’re going to wear a device on your face.
Just as crucially, Google has thrown in a small controller, which feels like the modern evolution of the Wii remote. With a touchpad that you can scrape your finger across, or click, a back button and a home button, the idea is that it will enable you to actually interact with the virtual world that you’re a part of.
I was actually surprised how well this works. When you’re in VR, if you lift the controller up you’ll see a digital version of it floating in front of you, with its movements tracking the real physical device in your hand. Extending from the end of the virtual controller is basically a laser beam - that enables you to select and press on stuff in VR with precision. This is a million times better than Google Cardboard’s input method of pulling on the weird metal thing on the side, and hoping for the best.
The hardware isn’t completely perfect. In VR, the field of view isn’t particularly amazing (I’m not sure if this is because the phone is the screen, or is something to do with the headset). Similarly, the resulting experience feels slightly low resolution - and perhaps my eyes are broken, but sometimes it is hard to focus on screen. But even despite these flaws (which may well be best in class with current technology), there is enough to get me excited about the future.
Interfacing and Apps
When you launch the daydream app, you’re presented with a fairly normal app-store style interface. It’s only when you hit the VR button that your phone transforms. Inside VR, the interface is reminiscent of what you might get on a smart TV. And this is really smart - with Daydream, Google has wrapped everything VR in a mini VR friendly launcher, making the process seamless. You can even access the (VR-specific) Google Play store and buy VR apps - while in VR. If you download something, it’ll install to your phone silently without having to remove the headset. Brilliant.
And Google, being the corporate behemoth that it is, has also baked in a number of default VR apps that really show off the platform. First off there’s a stand alone Street View app, which is designed to let you jump into some of the most interesting places that Google has poked a camera around - think the likes of Pompeii rather than your local supermarket, for example.
YouTube also has a VR app ready to go, and you can fire up any of the thousands of 360 videos available on there. You can even watch non-360 content on YouTube, and it instead tries to recreate something akin to being in a cinema or a dark room and watching instead.
The app that wowed me the most though - surprisingly - was Google Photos. Smartly, the app had picked out all of the panoramas I’d taken and uploaded over the years. These were just normal iPhone panoramas - nothing quite as fancy as 360. But it was very striking being dropped suddenly into a completely familiar situation.
At the flick of a button, I was standing once again in Arlington Cemetery - in exactly the same spot I’d stood in for real back in May. I turned my head to the left and saw the rolling fields of graves in front of me - and the Lincoln memorial standing tall in the distance, on the other side of the Potomac. Freaky.
I hit next - and suddenly I was inside the Lincoln memorial. I raised my head to see Abraham Lincoln’s face looking back. And I looked to my right, to see the half-face of the fellow tourist who ruined the panorama when I took it, streaking across my field of vision.
And then I hit next again… and rather confusingly, I was standing in my unfurnished living room, taken a couple of weeks before I moved in.
It was weirdly mesmerising, and the fact that the content - my content - was already there waiting for me sold me on VR quicker than a clever 360 video of a rollercoaster or whatever ever could.
The other stroke of genius is Google leveraging another of its creations: Chromecast. At the tap of a button inside VR, you can send what you’re seeing to your TV - so people around you can experience it too. It’s brilliant because it turns what was previously a solitary experience into something that can be shared, and this is going to be important if VR is ever going to become something that people do outside of a corner of their bedroom room.
There are a handful of other apps and games too - though to be honest, of the few that I’ve played, I’ve not been enormously impressed. What is exciting though is that by making Daydream a fully-fledged VR platform, it should be pretty easy for developers to get to work building cool VR apps, and then just as easy for them to make it available to us to download.
A VR Headset For Normal People
So £99 will bag you a headset, through which you can share experiences to your TV, watch 360 videos and relive your own memories. And crucially, it is easy to use.
It isn’t a necessary purchase - but it is £99 for a fun toy which could provide some family fun at Christmas. Go on, buy one and film your Gran sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet.
To be clear, it still feels like we’re a generation or two away from VR’s “iPhone” moment. But Google Daydream 2 is making me start to believe that maybe it could become something that normal people use too.