Getting a premium VR headset is a pricey endeavour, and even the relatively cheap PSVR requires a minimum of £550 to get the most basic experience. But there are other systems capable of using your smartphone, that thing you use every single day, to offer a VR experience. It's nowhere near as impressive as the uber-expensive stuff, but it's also a darn sight cheaper. The only question is, which platform is best?
The Gear VR (2016)
Lego Batman for scale
Samsung was the first real name to come out with a mobile VR system designed to be a premium product, rather than a cheap gimmick. Developed by VR bigwigs Oculus, four different versions of the Gear VR have been released since late 2014 - though only two of them were ever intended to be used by consumers.
The Gear VR is a self contained system, with built-in controls and a system that locks the phone into place. It's compatible with six Samsung Galaxy devices: the S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, Note 5, S7, and S7 Edge. The 2016 model was originally compatible with the Note 7, but for obvious reasons that was changed.
Daydream it's Google's second foray into the world of VR, after the launch of Cardboard back at I/O 2014. Rather than focussing on being a cheap and more inclusive product, Daydream is designed to be a premium VR service for more powerful phones. So far only two phone models are compatible: Google's own Pixel, and the Moto Z. Multiple variants of both phones are available, all of which are compatible. Expect this to change over the course of the year, as developers announce brand new devices.
Daydream's hardware consists of a fabric-covered headset that your phone is placed inside, with a separate remote used for control. It's clear from using it, however, that much of Daydream's asking price is for the remote rather than the headset itself. The headset is incredibly basic, and with the exception of a built-in NFC tag it has no advanced features of its own.
Hahahahah. I'm joking. Cardboard is pretty rubbish in comparison to the other two, and these days it's definitely more of a novelty than a serious piece of kit. There's a reason why Google has launched Daydream after all. I won't be looking at Cardboard since it's been done to death, and anyone who's curious can get themselves sorted out with a headset for less than a fiver. Go ahead, most of the apps are free to try anyway.
Price: Variable, but you get what you pay for. Available almost everywhere.
Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way right here. The Daydream headset's design is, well, weird as hell. The most obvious thing to note is that the exterior is covered in fabric, and while that might add some aesthetic and tactile advantages, it really isn't clever. Stuff gets dirty very easily. Even if you leave it lying around doing nothing it's going to end up with a layer of dust. The Daydream website claims that the headset is hand washable, but why does it need to be? With the exception of the straps and the face cushion, the Gear VR is made out of hardened plastic. If you want to clean that, you just wipe it with a damp cloth or sponge, which takes about two seconds.
The Daydream also has a lot more in common with the cheap VR headsets you can go out and buy, since you just open up the front and slap a phone in there. It's nice and simple, and I'm assuming this is because it's going to have to deal with multiple phones of varying different sizes and designs.
The Gear VR is a bit different in this respect. Putting the phone in takes a while to sort out, due to the fact you have to remove a faceplate and properly lock the phone in place. It's not overly complicated, but I did need to consult the instruction manual to make sure I was doing it right. The main problem? I didn't realise you could adjust the dock connecting the phone to the headset, since it has to be shifted forwards for anyone using a Galaxy S phone rather than a Galaxy Note.
But, that said, it feels much more comforting knowing your phone is always going to be in the right position. Sadly this security is due to the fact it's only designed for Samsung's premium-tier phones, so all the designers had to worry about was making sure that very specific Galaxy S and Galaxy Note models all fit properly. Daydream doesn't have that luxury.
<Update> At this point the original version of this article made comments about how, unlike the Daydream, you weren't able to charge a phone while it's inside the Gear VR, because the headset draws power directly from the phone's charging port. I've since been made aware of a USB-C port hiding in plain sight, on the bottom right-hand side of the headset. The original issue was a minor one at best, since charging up your phone during VR mode isn't particularly clever, but now those comments have been rendered moot. </Update>
One obvious advantage that the the more complex Gear VR design has over the Daydream Viewer's more simplistic approach is that you can adjust the headset to make things more comfortable on your eyes. While you can't move the lenses left and right to fiddle with the Interpupillary distance (IPD), there is a dial that lets you change how far the lenses and display are from your eyes. That way you can get the focus just right, and you don't give yourself a headache trying to squint. The downside is that the further away the display is, the smaller your field of view. Essentially meaning you see less of the screen and more of the headset's interior. Sadly there isn't really a solution for this at the moment, barring personalised prescription lenses inside the headset itself. A pricey alternative to a (mostly) non issue.
I didn't find focussing on the screen to be a problem with the Daydream, but it's worth pointing out that I have pretty good eyesight. I couldn't say how it might affect someone else, which means the Gear VR's adjustability is likely to be a more inclusive option.
The main downside to the Gear VR is that I did find it steams up quite easily - a problem I had with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PSVR. I've come to the conclusion that breathing through my mouth blows air upwards slightly, which screws the whole thing up. But! I didn't experience that problem with the Daydream, which I didn't even realise until after I was done using it. It seems that, as annoying and stupid as it may seem, the gap on the underside of the headset provided enough ventilation to stop the lenses from fogging up. You did a good job there, Google, just in a very weird sort of way.
Apparently the original developer edition Gear VR had a miniature fan to prevent screen fogging, and I can't help but think that this would be a good thing to reintroduce. Provided people have the option to turn it off, however.
If you've ever used a cheap cardboard headset for extended periods of time, you know that things can get quite painful. Where it gets painful differs from person to person, but I tend to get it in the top of my forehead - especially if the headset in question is resting on my nose. It happened with the plastic headset I used very briefly, it happened with Microsoft's Hololens, and it happened with Daydream.
I should make it clear that the whole nose situation wasn't an issue here, because of the aforementioned gap between the bottom of the headset and the rest of my face. Despite that, however, extended periods of use did start to get a bit painful and fucked with my head a fair bit. It took longer than a dirt cheap headset, but nowhere near as long as the three ultra-premium VR headsets and, crucially, the Gear VR.
Why exactly this happened isn't clear, but my guess is that it's because a mix of different reasons. The first was because of the underside gap and the way I had to position the headset and the strap to compensate. The second is that, compared to the Gear VR at least, the 'rim' that actually comes in contact with your face is quite rigid and doesn't have much cushioning. The third, and final point, is likely down to the fact that the Daydream doesn't have an overhead strap to lock it in place a bit better. This exacerbated the first problem, since it was much less secure. But hey, at least Google realised that people want a headset with straps this time!
The Gear VR, on the other hand was a totally different story. The rim of the headset had a decent amount of cushioning that kept the hard plastic well away from your soft and fragile face. It offers a very snug fit, and that lining is removable should it end up being some sort of problem. The Gear VR also has that third strap that goes over the top of your head, and that means it's a lot more stable during use.
It's not all hunky dory, however, since the Gear VR's controls could certainly do with some work. The Daydream headset's biggest draw is the remote control, which is a lovely piece of kit and lets you relax your hands and arms while retaining control of what's on scheme. The Gear VR's controls are built onto the right hand side of the headset, so if you want to do anything you end up feeling like X-Men's Cyclops. In short bursts this isn't a problem, but if you're doing anything for more than a very short period of time (like browsing the Oculus app store), your arm gets very tired very quickly.
Control is pretty simple on both counts, and if you've used a mobile VR headset before then things aren't going to feel unfamiliar. Both headsets rely on the phone's internal sensors to track the movement of your head, and with that you can just turn around to see a different portion of the screen. Plus, like Cardboard before them, Daydream and Gear VR have a system that lets you select options after pointing a small on-screen cursor at something for a set period of time.
The main difference is the way Google and Samsung/Oculus present the control mechanisms. Google has a separate remote control, with buttons, a touch sensor, and motion controls. The Gear VR has controls built into the right-hand side of the headset, including a touch-enabled D-Pad, and a small number of buttons. Aside from the comfort issues mentioned before, and users doing their best impressions of Scott Summers, the control situation is fairly balanced on both sides. Though obviously Google's inclusion of motion controls does mean Daydream has a distinct advantage.
Say, for instance, you're using your VR headset to browse the web. Maybe you're a masochist, I don't know. You need to navigate an on-screen keyboard to get to your digital destination, or else you're going to look at a blank page all day. Anyone who's attempted to use a keyboard on a games console or streaming box will know this situation.
With the Gear VR you have to scroll to each individual letter, which takes an age and kills off your arm in the process. The Daydream's motion controls makes this process infinitely easier, since you can just wave the remote around and save yourself from all that tedious scrolling. Heck, even using the touch pad to move around is a better option since it doesn't make your dominant arm feel as though you've just been to the gym.
Plus, it's really easy to hit the buttons on the Gear VR by accident and screw up whatever it is you were doing. The number of times I accidentally paused Netflix because I was trying to adjust the volume is ridiculous.
So in terms of control, Daydream is miles ahead of what Samsung is offering you. If I were a betting man, I'd put money on Samsung having a motion-enabled remote of its own sometime in 2017. I assume, however, that it will be a separate purchase, rather than being included in the core £100 (RRP) Gear VR package.
The main problem with the Daydream is that it's very early days, and there's not much content. This is a bit of a oddity given how Google was the only real pioneer in the world of affordable, inclusive mobile VR. Cardboard may be basic, with a lot of really quite terrible headsets out there, but you can't deny it opened the door for a lot of virtual reality apps and experiences. So, logically, you'd expect the Google's Daydream platform to have some links back to the old stuff - at the very least ensuring that there's some sort of headset compatibility.
But no. Daydream is totally separate. For some reason using Cardboard apps with the Daydream headset is harder than with the shitty £5 paper headsets you can buy online. The cardboard headsets have that bizarre magnet switch on the side, which functions as a way of activating things in a Cardboard-compatible app. Daydream doesn't have that, and from what I can tell the official controller doesn't work with Cardboard apps either.
You can still use Cardboard apps with the Daydream headset, but that's going to require turning off NFC (so the phone doesn't open the Daydream app as soon as you put it into the headset), and getting another Bluetooth controller to control what's going on on-screen. It's not the end of the world, but it's one of those things that makes you wonder what the hell Google was thinking. It released a new product that didn't work with its own platform. Even if it wants to phase out Cardboard (which it clearly does), give devs a bit of time to make their apps compatible with Daydream for crying out loud!
Thankfully we have been seeing that since launch, and Daydream's library of apps is steadily growing. It's slow moving, and Samsung had a couple of years to get ahead, but in time the content issue shouldn't be a problem.
The other problem with Daydream, for the time being, is that it's only compatible with two phone models: Google's Pixel and the Moto Z. Thankfully this doesn't sound like it'll be the case for long. Google has been working with phone makers to ensure future devices are Daydream ready (including Samsung), and it sounds like the only barrier is ensuring that the devices in question are fast enough to run the software. Hopefully, the upcoming Mobile World Congress in Barcelona will bring some new additions to the Daydream family. So in six months time you should find yourself with a lot more Google-approved options where VR is concerned.
Both systems have their own way of automatically opening up the VR content once the phone is in the headset, so you don't have to worry about sorting that out yourself. Daydream uses an NFC tag built into the headset, and the Gear VR uses a bit of software called 'Gear VR Services'. Both of these can be disabled if you want to use Cardboard-compatible apps from Google Play, though the Daydream's is much easier. Daydream users only have to switch off NFC or use a different headset, both of which take seconds to achieve.
The Gear VR requires you to disable Gear VR Services, which means going into your apps list and doing it manually. It's that much of a hassle to keep disabling and re-enabling it that there are a number of apps that do it for you with a single tap of the screen, though they do cost a little bit of money. These apps often let you use the Gear VR's built-in controls to click what's on-screen as well, taking over from the magnetic switch on Cardboard headsets. This means you can use Cardboard apps to their fullest without needing a separate controller - something you can't do with the Daydream headset/controller combo.
Winner: The Gear VR. For Now
There's no real question about it at the moment, despite its faults the Gear VR is the better headset and has the better system. It's more comfortable, has a headset with a better design, offers more content, is compatible with more phones, and costs less to go out and buy. But don't expect things to be this way for long, because Daydream has an awful lot of potential.
Samsung has a clear head start, so there's more content available for people to use right now - more so when you consider the sort-of compatibility with Google Cardboard apps. That's bound to change as time goes on, and we've already seen a number of developers make their apps compatible with the Daydream platform. Netflix is a very good example, since it was only available on Gear VR when I started working on this article. Now, though, it's available on both - a clear indicator that things will change in the future. It's also worth mentioning that Google's own suite of apps, like YouTube and Street View, are not available on the Gear VR. Not unless you're willing to use third party knock-offs, like Windows Phone users have had to deal with for many a year.
The future holds promise, though, and Daydream is picking up some steam out in the big bad world. Cardboard apps have already started transitioning to the new platform, and the controller is far superior to what the Gear VR has to offer. Having the controls built into the headset certainly has its perks, but it can get tiresome after a while. Literally. The only real advantage the Gear VR's controls have is that you don't need to charge them up separately, but this has the obvious downside of being extra taxing on your phone's battery.
A lot can change in a year, and by 2018 we might see Daydream leaving the Gear VR struggling to keep a hold on the mobile VR market (small as it may be). We might also see a Samsung device compatible with the Gear VR and Daydream, which would make the new device (s) far more appealing - something Samsung desperately needs after the Note 7 fiasco. The only way that situation could go wrong is if there isn't a controller compatible with Daydream and the Gear VR. Nobody wants to cough up the cash for a Gear VR headset and have to pay another £65 to access the other system.
The future is bright for mobile VR, and we're bound to find out more over the next couple of months with MWC and I/O 2017 arriving in February and May respectively.