Yesterday I got to the Made By Google pop-up store (which really should be permanent) at opening time to fondle the Pixel XL phone and try Daydream View.
Unfortunately, my time on Daydream View was too damn brief. But I intend to try again later when things are less hectic. Samsung’s 837 store suffered the same problem at one time. Time passes and the crowds diminish. At Samsung 837, I was able to get about an hour on a Gear VR one day.
Google was right to go with fabric for the headset. The feel is not tech at all. It feels like apparel. It’s very light. And I had no problem with the single strap for support. Despite my reservations from seeing photos, there was no light leakage.
The remote control is light, the plastic doesn’t feel flimsy or cheap, and buttons are easy to find and use with the headset on.
Although Google claims the headset is designed to be used with glasses, this was contrary to my own experience. I tried it first with my glasses on and the headset put too much pressure on the bridge of my nose. Trying to adjust the headset didn’t work and it became so intolerable I had to remove my glasses. Happily, I can report my idiosyncratic eyes worked just fine without the glasses. Everything was in focus despite no Focus Wheel for adjustment.
My first test — with glasses on — was the VR of this:
The controller became a wand. And I was able to do all this without really trying or needing any hints:
Open the box …
… go through the door …
… select this beast …
… and then give it a drink, some food, and a pet.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m not a fan of CGI in VR. It’s like this to me.
And it was like that with this too.
This room …
… wasn’t as bright in VR as it is in the YouTube promo (see end of post).
I also wasn’t convinced that it was something even close to real. The Gear VR promo that features a room with Iron Man/Avengers stuff has more detail and atmosphere than the Fantastic Beasts VR I tried.
Things became unintentionally very interesting while I was in that demo. While trying to adjust the headset to relieve the pressure on my nose, I wound up accidentally turning off the Pixel XL! So I had to remove the headset completely — to get my glasses off too — and then remove the phone from the headset, turn it back on, swipe up, and then replace the phone in the headset.
And I replaced it without being completely careful. But I was accurate enough.
When I put the headset back on, I was in the Daydream UI and then boom! I was back in the Beasts VR where I left off.
But I exited that. I was just not impressed aside from seeing how the controller worked. I had no real problems with pointing aside from the CGI wand. It seemed “longer” than the controller and I had to move the tip of the wand onto something to make it work. There were no other problems I experienced. And I wouldn’t call that wand tip thing a problem so much as the newness of Daydream and developers still figuring out fine details.
I didn’t play with the Daydream UI until I was out of the Beasts VR.
And, wow, is there a huge difference between that UI and the one on the Gear VR.
It’s readable! On the Gear VR, UI titles are basically like on the left:
With the Daydream UI, I could read everything. And that was without reading glasses! The text was solid and of good size.
My next stop was YouTube. I chose a random 360-video from whatever popped up in the selections.
I can’t recall now what camera shot the video, but it wasn’t very impressive. I understood why someone said flat 360 is a “fishbowl of video.” It looked like that. I have to state here that I never had a “fishbowl” sensation with the original white Gear VR when viewing flat 360 video. I can’t tell if the “fishbowling” this time was the camera or the Daydream View headset.
At this point, the unthinkable happened. The Google rep told me I had one minute left in my demo time!
I hadn’t really seen anything.
So I bailed on the 360 video that was open, went back to YouTube and quickly did a Search.
Oh, it’s so easy to type in Daydream with that controller. Really smooth. There was no trouble pointing at the on-screen keyboard and selecting a letter. I couldn’t try voice search because of the din in the store (talking and music).
The YouTube problem is the usual one — the horrible search algorithm!
Nevertheless, I found a demo of the upcoming Vuze camera. I didn’t have time to dig around to find the latest posted video, so I settled for this one:
I figured since it had bright lighting, it would be a good indication of what the camera was like (see end of post).
As experienced video and VR director Sam Macaroni pointed out in a podcast, past a certain distance from a 3D camera, everything becomes flat.
I think most things were too far away from the lenses to create the illusion of depth I expected.
But I couldn’t even stop to watch the entire video because the Google Rep was again telling me my time was coming to an end!
So I popped back into YouTube search and quickly found a Jump camera sample video:
Ah, Jump! You are a thing of heartbreak! You tease us with clarity and 3D and then break our heart with seeing nothing when looking down and up!
I didn’t have enough time. The Google Rep wanted the headset for the next person waiting.
I can’t draw real conclusions from the Vuze and Jump samples. I just didn’t have enough time.
But the entire Daydream View experience is Apple-simple. No connectors to deal with, no techie plastic to touch on the headset, a UI that’s just so damn easy to use (aside from the usual abominable YouTube search algorithm), and with text that’s easy to read.
And here’s the real kicker. This is something I confirmed. I went to three different Best Buy stores afterwards to find a Gear VR to peer into (two of the three stores didn’t have a demo unit out!).
Daydream View with the Pixel XL phone doesn’t have the distracting and annoying screen-door effect of the Gear VR. The image I saw was sharper, without the black intersecting lines I’ve always experienced with a Gear VR. And, yes, the image quality was the same with my glasses on and off.
I don’t know why that is, either. Something to do with the lenses? Distance between lenses and phone screen?
But here’s a distressing thing: The new black Gear VR has a fishbowl distortion I never experienced with the original white Gear VR. With the original white Gear VR, everything had the flatness you see in real life when moving your head. Nothing curved. Even flat 360 video didn’t curve. Every single black Gear VR demo unit I’ve tried at a Best Buy store has had massive curvature. That combined with the screen-door effect is a massive detriment for the Gear VR (and for VR in general!). I can’t recommend the Gear VR at all now.
But not all is well in Daydream View land, either. It has a slight curvature. Not as bad as the new black Gear VR, but noticeable. It is slightly annoying. Although I wonder if it contributed to the “fishbowl of video” I experienced with the flat 360 sample video I tried. With the original white Gear VR, even flat 360 video looked like real life, without any curvature.
Curvature — and a honking circular “pedestal” watermark directly below the viewer — breaks presence.
I recommend the black Gear VR in one respect: the demo running at Best Buy stores. The demo is canned but when it ends, it tells you to keep the headset on to see more. And the more that appears is stunning.
It’s a trailer for a new Cirque du Soleil VR from the Felix & Paul studio. It’s full 3D and incredible. The depth of the 3D is really something to see. I don’t know how they pull it off. I suspect that because they use a black background, it enhances the 3D effect by removing distractions. But the image quality is also startling, even with the interference of the screen-door effect. When that Felix & Paul VR hits the superior image quality of the Daydream View headset, people will get really excited. Especially anyone who thinks about wanting to create VR video. (Sidenote: Anyone who says there’s no cinematography possible in VR needs to see that trailer. Felix & Paul probably composited the views into one, but the human, costumed cast are professionally lit. It’s not just a camera being pointed. It’s cinematography.)
Daydream VR is a huge leap for Mobile VR.
But it’s just the real start for Mobile VR. It’s made it easy. With superior image quality.
But next year someone has to release a phone with a 4K screen that’s Daydream VR-ready.
Will it be Samsung? Will it be Sony?
4K is desperately needed. Even with the superior image quality of the Pixel XL phone in Daydream View, the overriding problem of VR is that there aren’t enough pixels to render a human face when it’s far from the lens.
After my VR demos, I went and looked at 4K TV screens in Best Buy. I wanted to see how human faces were far away from the camera lens. They are still recognizable as unique faces, not an indistinct collection of pixels. That’s the kind of sharpness VR needs. It’ll take years to get there, but 4K screens could help as soon as next year. CGI will limit the appeal of VR. Humans like to see humans. And VR resolution is too limited at this time.
VR cameras will probably need to go to 8K too.
And who will release the first 3D VR camera that the public will buy in droves? Will it be Apple? Amazon? Probably not Google — although given how damn good the Pixel XL phone and Daydream View headset are, they should! It needs to be a camera that will work with any phone. None of that lock-in such as Samsung has done with the Gear 360.
Let me go one step further: Who will release an all-in-one Daydream View headset with 4K screen? My problem with the current setup is that the Pixel XL phone is frighteningly-expensive. US$849 for the 128GB model (remember, it lacks a microSD card slot!). How low can they get the price of a 4K headset screen by getting rid of the camera, the phone hardware, and even the touchscreen layer? Could a 4K all-in-one drop to US$499? Maybe even $399? That would set the VR market on fire.
Anyone who’s been thinking of buying a Samsung S7 and a Gear VR should think again. The Pixel XL phone and Daydream VR headset offer a superior all-round experience. Buy it instead. Hell, if you have just a Samsung phone, sell it for the Pixel XL. The phone is that good.
As for me, I’m already preparing for my next encounter with Daydream View. I’m going to compile a YouTube playlist of what I want to see. The next time I have that headset on, I can go straight to my playlist to see the best possible camera samples available.
The VRs I tried:
4K is coming: