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I became convinced of virtual reality’s potential on Christmas Day, 2015.
My grandmother was sitting on the sofa, slack-jawed and transfixed, walking across the surface of Mars. She’d never seen anything like it.
She was only using Cardboard — the dirt-cheap, virtual reality (VR) headset from Google that runs off a smartphone. But it seemed obvious: If even the most basic VR experiences can provoke reactions like that, a day will come when the tech moves firmly into the mainstream — radically transforming how we consume media and interact with one another.
After trying out Google’s big new virtual reality push, Daydream, I have to say: That day’s not here yet.
Cardboard, meet Daydream
On Tuesday, Google had a massive event announcing and launching a slew of new products. There are the Pixel smartphones, the Google Home smart-home hub, the Chromecast Ultra 4K video streaming device — and Daydream, a new virtual reality headset and platform.
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Daydream is the successor to Cardboard, Google’s first experimental foray into VR. Cardboard was just that — a cardboard box with two lenses that the user stuck their phone into. It was novel, but extremely basic.
The new tech is more refined: It still works with smartphones, but only certain ones that are up-to-spec and “Daydream-compatible.” (The Pixel phones, available to pre-order now and arriving next month, will be the first on the market.) And the headset itself is made of plastic and soft fabrics, and feels pleasingly professional and comfortable. (Google describes it as “cosy.”)
I gave Daydream a go at a special launch event in London on Tuesday — but it failed to blow me away.
Virtual reality requires transcendence
The best virtual reality experiences have an element of transcendence to them. It’s the moment when the fact that you’re sitting there with a screen awkwardly strapped to your head just melts away, and you really feel there. It doesn’t matter if the graphics are cartoony, or if the screen is a bit pixellated — all of a sudden, you’re transported into an entirely new world. Done right, it can be magical.
At no point using Daydream did I feel this. I got the chance to try out two demos — an “experience” based around the forthcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” JK Rowling movie, and a stylised game that has you roll a ball around a race track by tilting the remote.
Both times, it felt like I was using Cardboard. Sure, it was clearly more polished than the DIY headset, with less lag and a great new input device — but the underlying experience was similar. Head movements felt unnatural, the images didn’t feel “real”: There was no transcendence. I came away with a headache.
I was, inescapably, sitting in a chair with a smartphone stuck to my face.
Daydream, is evolutionary, not revolutionary — and that’s a problem
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Daydream is an evolutionary upgrade to Cardboard, rather than anything revolutionary. And I came away feeling like the technology behind mobile-powered virtual reality just isn’t there yet.
And some of the suggested use-cases are just baffling. Why would anyone choose to watch a 2D movie or video in a VR movie theatre, when doing some would entail a far lower effective resolution and quality than watching on a regular television screen?
In short: It’s great, but it’s not going to win over many VR skeptics.
(There are other smartphone-powered virtual reality solutions on the market, notably Samsung’s Gear VR headset. I haven’t tried Gear so can’t compare it to Daydream, though a colleague who has tried both said they were fairly similar.)
I’ve got no doubt that developers will be able to create extremely fun and novel experiences with Daydream. My grandmother’s experience with Cardboard shows that even the most basic tech can provoke wonder, and Tuesday’s launch is the first step down a long and very promising road.
Google plans to have “generations” of Daydream, The Verge reports, meaning developers inside and outside of Google will have the freedom to push the limits of the tech over time without worrying about ensuring backwards compatibility. But right now, it’s not a new computing platform — it’s a highly sophisticated toy.
The age of virtual reality — immersive, transcendent, consumer-accessible virtual reality — is coming. But it’s not here yet.
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