Friday, November 11, 2016

Google Daydream first impressions compared to my Samsung Gear VR, Playstation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive



Daydream, Google's premium mobile VR system, launched yesterday and I finally got to try it out.  Here are my first impressions, in comparison to my Samsung Gear VR, Playstation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

ABOUT GOOGLE DAYDREAM
Google announced the Daydream mobile VR platform early this year at Google I/O to provide high quality "VR for everyone."

Daydream builds on Google Cardboard, which made a basic form of VR available to almost everyone with a smartphone but which does not have sufficient tracking accuracy to provide a convincing VR experience. Google sought to improve upon that with Daydream, which is designed for a premium mobile VR experience to compete with the Samsung Gear VR, which has until now been accepted as the best mobile VR platform.

Google Daydream consists of a Daydream-ready phone, a Daydream-ready VR headset (Google calls its headset Daydream View) and a motion controller. 



Unlike the Samsung Gear VR which uses an active headset with more accurate sensors, Daydream uses a passive headset and instead relies on a phone with a Daydream-ready processor and sensor to increase tracking accuracy and reduce latency.

At this point, the only officially Daydream-ready phones are Google Pixel and Pixel XL.  However, Google has partnered with several manufacturers who will be producing their own Daydream-ready phones.  Those partners include Samsung, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Asus, and Alcatel.  (Indeed, ZTE and Asus have already produced the ZTE Axon 7 and Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe which are supposed to be Daydream-ready, but Android 7.0, which is required for Daydream, hasn't been rolled out to them yet.)

Besides wider manufacturer support, one way that Daydream attempts to leapfrog Samsung Gear VR is with its motion controller.  The Gear VR uses a built-in touchpad or a Bluetooth gamepad to control its games.  Daydream instead uses a motion controller, which is designed to enhance immersion.



HANDS-ON DEMO
I got to demo Daydream.  The demo was of the Fantastic Beasts VR experience, where you open a magical suitcase to see creatures from the movie (my friend Mike Cane has a more detailed description of the VR experience).  I was able to try it with both a Pixel XL and the smaller Pixel phone.  Here are my impressions.

Inserting a phone into the Daydream View headset is as simple as unlatching the cover and placing the phone roughly in the middle of the phone holder, then pulling the latch over a hook to close it.  An NFC tag embedded on the front cover lets the phone know that it's been inserted in a Daydream headset, then starts the Daydream software automatically. 


The phone holder has small rubber spheres with magnets which allow the phone to sense its placement on the headset, and automatically center the screen.  This makes using Daydream View a little easier than using a Gear VR, which requires the phone to be connected to its Micro USB port then placed between guides to ensure that the phone is centered.  It is also easier to use than a Cardboard viewer, where the user has to make sure the phone is centered on the headset. However, the View's design means it is held in place mostly by friction and pressure only.  I didn't test how securely the View holds the phone.

I did not see any way to adjust the focus or interpupillary distance of the headset.  However, I personally did not experience any difficulty getting a clear view on the headset. (YMMV.) I believe this means the headset has a large sweet spot (unlike the Oculus Rift or PSVR, which must be positioned just so to get a clear image).

With the phone inserted, the phone's speakers, headset jack and USB port are exposed and phone can be plugged into a USB adapter and/or headphones.

The headset is lightweight and unlike most other VR headsets, is flexible and covered with fabric.  The Oculus Rift headset (reviewed here) also has a fabric cover (seems to be polyester), but the Daydream seems to use a softer and more comfortable fabric cover (appears to be a cotton fabric with a high thread count).  Because the Daydream View headset is lightweight, it uses only one strap (there's no center strap unlike the Gear VR, Rift and Vive) and I don't need to wear the stretchable headstrap so tightly against my face.  The combination of its light weight and fabric exterior makes the Daydream View very comfortable to wear - probably the most comfortable VR headset I've tried (even more comfortable than my Playstation VR).



The View's facepad is removable and is made of a washable cushion. This is a very convenient feature. On my other headsets (especially the Vive), I can work up a sweat, which gets absorbed by the facepad. It's hard to keep the facepad clean. With the View's washable facepad, you can keep it smelling fresh. (However, Google isn't selling extra facepads yet.)

Here's what the headset looks like without the facepad. You can see that the construction is quite simple, and there are no electronics. It's little more than a Google Cardboard viewer.

PERFORMANCE
As I wore the headset and the display came into view, I immediately noticed several differences and some similarities between the View and the Gear VR:
+ Sharpness:  The first phone I tried was the Pixel XL, which has a 2k resolution.  As noted by Mike Cane, it does not suffer from the screendoor effect (SDE), even though I could see the individual subpixels if I looked carefully.  I that regard, the Pixel XL with the View looks similar to the Playstation VR.  However, unlike the PSVR, I didn't notice any softness in the display -- the View was sharp.  I then tried the Pixel which has a HD (1920x1080) resolution.  The Pixel had about the same SDE as my iPhone 6 on a Google Cardboard viewer, which makes sense because the iPhone 6 has the same resolution.
+ No god-rays. On some headsets with Fresnel lenses such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, light from images can look like they are emanating rays (in the case of the Vive, you instead see a reflection of the concentric rings of the Fresnel lens). This effect, called god rays, can be immersion-breaking for some people. The View's lenses are not Fresnel lenses and therefore there were no god-rays (which are very prominent on the Oculus Rift).
+ No fogging noticed. Some headsets, such as the consumer edition of the Gear VR, can fog up. In the brief time that I used the Daydream headset, I didn't notice any fogging. I believe it helps that the sides of the Daydream headset allow air to flow through it.
+ No aberration or fringing noticed. On some headsets, images can have a red, yellow or blue fringe, usually near the edge of the lens. I see this on the extreme left and right sides of the 2016 edition of the Gear VR and the top part of the Oculus Rift. I did not notice any aberration or fringing from the Daydream View.
- Light leak: The sides of the View headset did not cover my face.  Whenever my back was facing a bright light source such as a window, it would be reflected into the display as two thick, long and bright lines along the sides of the image.  It was quite distracting.  Another source of light leak was around the nose area, although that was less distracting.
- Distortion: As I moved my head from side to side, I could see the image bending and warping a bit. The distortion was even more pronounced on the Pixel than the Pixel XL. (Similar to using a Cardboard viewer without scanning the QR code for it). I spoke to a software developer who also tried Daydream and also noticed the distortion. I'm not sure if it's because the Pixel wasn't correctly configured. In theory, the distortion should be easy to fix with a software update. Meanwhile, by comparison, I see very little distortion on my 2016 Samsung Gear VR, and zero distortion on the PSVR, Rift or Vive.
- Field of view: The Daydream headset's FOV was modest.  It seemed to be about the same as a generic Google Cardboard viewer, and is noticeably smaller than the FOV of the 2016 Samsung Gear VR, Playstation VR, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. It is not surprising given the relatively small lenses, which are about the size of the lenses on my generic Cardboard viewers.
- Heat: The Pixel phone heats up quickly when used with Daydream. During the relatively short demo, the phone almost immediately became very warm, like the hood of a car. It seemed to heat up faster than my Samsung Galaxy S6 on the Gear VR. Some users have said that the Pixel will overheat after about an hour of gameplay, which if true, is a little better than the Samsung S6 on the Gear VR (mine tends to overheat after about 30-45 minutes on games with a lot of head movement).

TRACKING AND IMMERSION
My biggest question about Daydream was whether the tracking was competent given that it's only a passive headset. My impression was that the head tracking was similar to that of the Gear VR, which is pretty good. I didn't notice any lag or delay when I turned my head, and my impression was that the tracking seemed about as accurate as that of the Gear VR.

However, as with the Gear VR, Daydream has no positional tracking and cannot track X, Y or Z movement (vertical or horizontal movement) unlike the Playstation VR, Rift, or Vive. Because the Daydream has no positional tracking, it doesn't really create a sense of presence (the illusory feeling of being somewhere else). But again, it is no worse than the Gear VR in this respect.

As for the motion controller, it works acceptably although the tracking is not as good as I hoped.  I would say it is similar to the Wii Motion Plus.

The controller has a trackpad that can also be pressed like a button.  Below that is an app button (generally for menus in the app), and a home button.  There are volume buttons on the side.

The controller cannot sense its location (only its movement), so there is often a large discrepancy between the controller's actual location and its virtual representation.  The controller can sense movement in any direction, including rotation, although there is a noticeable lag (again, similar to the Wii and Wii Motion Plus).  However, it is similar to the Wii Motion Plus in terms of matching the speed and distance of controller movement.

Despite its limitations, I thought that the controller did enhance the VR experience because it is a more natural way to interact with the virtual world.  In the Fantastic Beasts app, for example, you used the controller to point at objects of interest and wave the controller like a magic wand.  It is more immersive than if you had to use a gamepad to press buttons, or even a trackpad beside the headset like the Gear VR.

EVALUATION
I think Google Daydream could overtake Gear VR as the premium mobile VR system with the most number of users not because it is better or more immersive, but simply because it has more manufacturers behind it.  As smartphones become more powerful, the incremental cost of making a phone Daydream-ready will decrease.  Therefore, I think more phones will become Daydream-ready regardless of whether customers specifically demand it. And if they have a Daydream-ready phone, getting a Daydream headset for it for just $79 is a no-brainer.

No, it's not a replacement for a full VR system with positional tracking such as the Playstation VR, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive but it's immersive enough to be legitimately considered 'true' VR in my opinion, and I think that for many consumers, that will be enough.

As for the Gear VR, it still has a huge lead over Daydream, with over 1 million active users and far more apps, and Samsung is still the leading Android manufacturer, so I think it will continue to do well.  If you have a Gear VR, I don't think there's any reason to dump it to switch to Daydream.  I think the market for mobile VR is large enough that Gear VR and Daydream can both succeed.