I'm in a little Blade Runner world. Rain's falling, at least as far as I remember. I see a noodle shop in the dystopia. I lean forward to the man behind the counter, the world getting closer to me, and suddenly my chest pops in pain: In real life, I'm seated in a Las Vegas conference room and I've just slammed into the table.
These were my first moments with the Lenovo Mirage Solo with Daydream. I wasn't used to having this much freedom of motion in a mobile headset.
Google announced last June that Lenovo would make a headset, advancing Google's phone-based mobile VR vision to a headset with its own built-in hardware. (HTC was originally onboard too, , in favor of its own in Asia.) Not only is the Mirage Solo standalone like the upcoming , but it has extra degrees of movement. You can lean forward or even walk around a tiny bit, as it has what's called six degrees of freedom (6DoF), something phone-based VR goggles normally don't do.
I tried the Mirage Solo for a good handful of minutes, playing a few games and apps and watching some videos while in a hotel suite here at CES. It's a better mobile VR experience than the . Yet, it's not a replacement for what high-end VR systems can do. Consider it a small taste of where VR will be heading: more wireless, more independent, more flexible.
Its biggest feat is the 6DoF tracking, using a pair of cameras in the front to position motion and allow leaning forward, ducking and even taking a few steps. The Oculus Rift, Vive, PlayStation VR and Microsoft's Windows Holographic VR can do this, but the Daydream View and can't.
I hurt my chest because I forgot how much freedom I had to move, and the Blade Runner experience invited me to lean in to my world. And yet, the Mirage Solo isn't really meant for serious VR walkabouts. Instead, I was advised to stay still, leaning and ducking, taking no more than a step or two. So I discovered it's more like lean-forward VR, not holodeck VR.
That distinction is what makes the Mirage Solo an odd proposition. In one sense, it's undoubtedly the future of where mobile VR is heading next. Six degrees of freedom is an inevitable future step, and makes every motion, even subtle ones, better. But the Mirage Solo literally stands alone right now as the only Google Daydream VR hardware with that feature. How many apps will be optimized for it? It's hard to tell.
Some experiences seemed like they weren't doing much with the extra freedom. I tried a skiing game where I made a cartoon character do stunt jumps by ducking and swaying, but I found the motion sensitivity was off.
The best experience I had, oddly enough, was a Google app called Arts & Culture VR. The app puts you in a virtual art museum, looking at paintings and photographs. On a standard Daydream View headset, you can look but you can't really realistically lean in. But you can on the Lenovo Mirage Solo. The subtle effect makes a difference. I found that those subtleties mattered more than the big ideas like walking around, because I didn't know my range and limitations. Unlike big-rig PC VR such as the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, there isn't an indicator of your wandering zone. Instead, the VR experience blacks out and asks you to back up a bit until the VR image reappears.
The Mirage Solo is big, bigger than a pair of Daydream View VR goggles. The headset felt comfortable, though. It still uses the standard Daydream VR remote to control things and point to objects. It has a touchpad, but only has three-degree-of-freedom movement, lacks haptics and feels less immersively linked to what's being seen in VR. It's a fine magic wand, but I hoped for something more.
The headset runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, much like many Android Daydream-compatible phones. It has a 2,560x1,440-pixel, 5.5-inch LCD display, 64GB of onboard storage and a 4,000mAh battery. It's unclear how long it'll last on a charge. And, since it's a completely enclosed system, it runs its own Google Daydream OS. It was hard to tell how that OS was different than Android: The general VR experience felt similar to what launches on a Daydream-ready phone.
A standalone 3D camera, too: Lenovo Mirage Camera
Lenovo and Google also have another trick up their sleeves: a camera that takes 3D 180-degree photos and videos. The Mirage Camera with Daydream, as it's formally called, is an oddity. It has no screen and just syncs directly with a phone. It can upload to YouTube and Google Photos and livestream, and its half-a-360-video viewing zone is meant to look good on the Mirage Solo VR headset and be easy to take quick snaps with.
I saw a few demo photos and videos, and they seemed OK. A bit low in frame rate, and not as crisp, when played in a VR headset, as a regular high-end phone camera would feel on a phone screen. It seems designed to capture magic moments and see them again like little 3D dioramas.
Playing demo clips back on the VR headset showed a bit of the potential: a birthday party clip made me think of my own kids. But why would I grab a strange new camera instead of my phone or another camera when my kid's blowing out the candles on his cake?
The Mirage Camera has its own Snapdragon 626 processor, a microSD card slot and a battery that lasts 2 hours on a charge, recharging via USB-C. The dual 13-megapixel fisheye cameras can't zoom: You're meant to just capture what's in front of you and go with the flow. As a sort of GoPro camera for a future of 3D VR, I'm not convinced I'd ever remember to use it.
A half-step, but a peek forward
Lenovo is targeting a price under $300 (about £220 or AU$385) for the camera, and under $400 (about £295 or AU$510) for the VR headset. Both of those prices seem high, especially since the Oculus Go, another phone-free standalone VR headset from Facebook, is coming soon for half the price ($200).
How good a device like the Mirage Solo is depends on the apps that take advantage of it. And I have a concern future hardware will pass it by. Maybe it's Google Daydream VR 1.5. It's a better experience, but without even knowing how good the Oculus Go will be, the Lenovo Mirage Solo feels like a hard headset to judge... and one I'd be unlikely to pick over a pair of cheap goggles and a great phone.
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