Virtual reality is hard.
But for $79, £69 or AU$119, Google's new Daydream View could be the break we've been waiting for.
Update, January 2017: It's on sale for $49 through February 25, only in the US.
It's a soft cloth eyebox that turns any compatible phone into a VR headset, and it comes complete with its own Wii-like motion controller for manipulating objects and menus in VR.
It's the easiest VR to use by far.
But does that mean you should run out and buy one? Not necessarily. Not yet, anyhow.
Magical but murky
One of the pitfalls of most VR is the number of cords, ports and things you have to adjust. The Daydream View puts them all to shame. Here are the steps to set it up:
- Open the headset's front door and remove the included controller
- Turn on your phone (if it's off) and place it on the door
- Close the door, place the headset on your head and adjust until the image looks clear
- Adjust the straps
- Hold down a button on the controller to calibrate, and start playing.
That's it. No adjusting the lenses, no fiddling with pairing procedures, no ports or cables to plug in. The phone automatically pairs with the headset and adjusts the screen to the correct position, like magic. You can put them on over your glasses with little difficulty, too.
Once you're inside, the included motion controller makes navigating menus a breeze. Just point where you want to go, and a little mouse cursor follows your motion quickly and accurately.
Just know that "easy" doesn't mean "perfect."
When I handed the Daydream View to my colleagues, many of them instinctively put it on the wrong way. The curved straps are supposed to rest on top of your head (like a crown) but it's tempting to cinch them down like a pair of ski goggles -- which isn't terribly comfortable.
And though the Daydream View is almost entirely made of soft, cushiony fabric instead of hard plastics, that didn't stop my wife and colleagues from complaining how front-heavy it was with a large Pixel XL phone inside. Even if it weighs less than a pound (roughly 0.85 lbs with the phone) there's still potential for neck strain over time.
The image quality is good -- I definitely felt like I was somewhere else! -- but it's not going to fool anyone who doesn't want to be fooled. It lets a little bit of light in the edges unless you've got a very wide head. And I often found I had to recalibrate the headset and controller in the middle of a session (it's easy -- just hold down the home button).
I even found a bug that makes VR totally unusable until I reboot the phone -- though I understand a software fix for that is coming soon.
Here's the rub: unless you have a Google Pixel or other Daydream-certified phone, the Daydream View won't work at all. That's by design: Google's pitch is that Daydream can keep you from getting sick in VR by ensuring both phones and apps meet a certain quality standard.
I haven't gotten sick -- so far.
But that means a murky future for Daydream, because we honestly don't know how many phone manufacturers and app developers will wholeheartedly support Google's new platform -- or if the results will be as good as these preliminary ones. Even the 5-inch Pixel offers a lesser experience than the 5.5-inch Pixel XL, because its screen is lower-resolution.
We tried another upcoming Daydream phone, the Huawei Mate 9, only to find out it may not be Daydream-ready until next year.
Update, January 2017: Google has extended support to the Moto Z, and soon the ZTE Axon 7. The Asus Zenfone AR and Huawei Mate 9 Pro (not the Mate 9) will also support Daydream. Check out our chart comparing all the Daydream phones.