A few new Google ads have gone up around the city featuring a small, centered Google "G" subtitled with the address of their new Soho popup showroom, 96 Spring St.
The minimalist, mysterious marketing worked. After seeing a billboard on Bowery just south of my office in Cooper Square and curious what was actually at 96 Spring St, I decided to swing by this afternoon.
Walking by the front doors, I had flashbacks to Samsung's Soho showroom, which was open last summer at 130 Prince St., just around the corner. That place was jam packed with tech on display. With so many phone models and products in their lineup, the tables at Samsung were crammed with glowing screens of all sizes and the store was equally bursting with people. Overall, it was a disappointing experience. The reason I went to Samsung was to try the new version of the GearVR and I remember being frustrated that the employees I finally identified in the crowd were actually unaware of its existence.
Google nailed their version of a showroom at 96 Spring St., which contrasted starkly with my experience at Samsung Galaxy Studio. There is nothing for sale at Made By Google (as the Google location is known). Instead, the showroom presents the fruits of Google's initial foray into hardware. They have a phone (the Pixel and Pixel XL), a VR HMD (Daydream View), and a few connected devices; that's the extent of the product lineup. The limited offering lends itself to Apple-like minimalism on the floor. Given the impressiveness of each product, it is anything but underwhelming. There are a few stations, laid out in an accessible configuration, that really emphasize the technology. A few phones encircle a prominent table staffed by an almost equal number of grey-hoodie clad, enthusiastic and knowledgable Google employees, and nestled into the dark nooks of the shop are a Daydream demo station, a globe-like exhibit of Google Photos, and two connected-home mock rooms.
Because these products are all new, and some (like the Pixel and Daydream) aren't yet publicly available, walking through the store is all about playing with Google's new tech and talking with the staff. The quality of the experience thus weighs heavily on the shoulders of the employees giving the demos, and your ability to get up close to the hardware without shuffling through a crowded space. The staff exceed expectations. Everyone I talked with was friendly, approachable, helpful and could still really "geek out" about technical details if I had specific questions. Because there is a line to get in the doors (don't worry, it moves pretty fast), the demo stations are pleasantly bustling, but always seem to have one or two free devices and a couple of hovering but not overly attentive Google experts nearby.
Walking down to Made By Google, I was thrilled by @sophiaedm's tweet announcing that Daydream was on display at 96 Spring St.
If you live in New York and want to try Google's Daydream View, go to 96 Spring Street! pic.twitter.com/W3LkkK6Uyg— Sophia Dominguez (@sophiaedm) October 23, 2016
I hadn't had the opportunity to try Daydream yet, but after two years with Cardboard and increasingly disappointing iterations of GearVR, I have been excited to check out the newcomer to the mobile Virtual Reality ecosystem.
The Daydream View itself ("View" is the name of the product as "Rift" is the name of Oculus' goggles) is just a case. Just like other mobile VR goggles, you slip a smartphone (ideally Google's Pixel) into the enclosure and the screen, viewed through a set of lenses, provides your VR experience. There are no electronics, no connections to the phone, nothing; it's basically a well-designed, soft Google Cardboard.
Although I have not confirmed it quantitatively, in terms of sheer performance and positional accuracy, the Daydream View paired with a phone specifically designed for VR sits somewhere between Cardboard (with an iPhone powering the experience) and GearVR. The nice thing about the Gear is that the on-board motion sensor delivers better positional accuracy then you could derive purely from phone accelerometer data. Without connecting the goggles to the phone, the Pixel can't benefit from any added horsepower, sensors, or whatever else you could imagine supplementing a phone-only VR rig.
Lack of a hardware connection does have some benefits. Because the goggles are not phone form-factor specific (they don't need special connectors or docks, or mounting brackets to tether to a phone), the View can accommodate most phones that are sufficiently performant and software-supported by Google. This is a major win for VR accessibility and will be increasingly so as Google broadens Daydream phone support.
All of the above said, Daydream tracks three degrees of freedom (pitch, yaw, and roll) shockingly well. The first thing I did when I strapped the Daydream to my face was put the tracking to the test. I am highly susceptible to motion sickness in VR and paid careful attention to signs of latency or discrepancy between the orientation of my head and the view I was seeing in the device. Not only did I hang out in VR for more than 10 minutes without the first signs of motion sickness (unprecedented for me in mobile VR), there were very few times I could perceive variation between my real motion / HMD attitude and simulated position.
I also want to highlight that, as I mentioned above and unlike cardboard, the Daydream View was strapped to my face. Google made the conscious decision when designing Cardboard to exclude a strap. This made people use it like a viewfinder and prevented people from holding it up for long-duration experiences which would certainly cause motion sickness. Clearly they are confident enough about Daydream that the View got a strap. This is the first real VR we've seen from Google.
Besides the VR, the Daydream View is by far the most comfortable headset I have worn. All of the rigid components are between the lenses and the smartphone enclosure and the rest of the goggles are flexible plastic and fabric. The faceplate is free to squish and deform; it comfortably conforms to your face and from the way the components are designed to fold and flex, appears to be capable of accommodating most face shapes and sizes. Additionally, it comfortably blocks out light leaks, a problem that taints VR in the Oculus Rift.
In keeping with the theme of simplicity, the View goggles lack a focus knob. Instead, to adjust focus, you tighten the strap to squish the lenses closer to your eyes. The plasticity of the faceplate is just right. Aligning VR lenses with your eyes just right can dramatically enhance image quality and the Daydream accommodates subtle shifts to its position and stays in place quite nicely. Educating users about adjusting focus if the view is blurry will require some effort on Google's part. Without a focus knob, a familiar interface element from binoculars and other optical instruments, the ability to sharpen focus is non-obvious. Though, the design yields a refreshingly non-techy lack of dials and plastic parts.
The other notable Daydream component is the Remote. Having some sort of motion tracked input, even if it is clunky, adds to the feeling of immersion. One of the most disconcerting feelings in VR is looking down and not seeing your hands. Or, even worse, looking at an avatar representation of "your" hands over which you have no authority. I will explain why it works so well in another post, but despite its positional inaccuracy (over time the remote "drifts" and needs to be re-centered) the Daydream remote is incredibly successful. In fact, it is a more comfortable input device to hold than the Oculus remote and the touchpad at the top provides significantly more optionality to UX designers than a simple button.
Google blew my mind with Daydream. I'm not saying it is as immersive as a Vive, as magical as hearing binaural audio for the first time though built-in Rift headphones, or as performant as a GearVR. Instead, the View is comfortable, relatively cheap and accessible, has a high-quality input device, and far surpassed my expectations in terms of frame-rate and latency. As much as I have been making fun of the heather-grey cloth cover at the office (a collab, I insist, between Google and Lululemon), the Daydream View doesn't look like a robot about to eat your face. Looking like a human being (or not) while wearing one of these things with other people around is actually a significant barrier to adoption. I've been involved professionally in the VR ecosystem for almost three years now and I still feel a little silly looking into the GearVR to select and load an experience in front of a friend or a client while trying to simultaneously carry on a conversation or explain what I'm doing. VR by Google is headed in the right direction, towards mass market appeal. In my opinion, this generation of VR from Daydream, or a subsequent one that is slightly more refined and compatible with more future phones, will likely be the first to get widespread adoption. It is, without a doubt, the headset I would buy personally over all others right now.