We got some new headsets!
1. Google Daydream First Impressions
Using a Google Pixel phone and the Daydream peripheral, this headset is in the class of non-positionally-tracked phone-holder headsets, and it does a great job of it, particularly with the hand control and content designed to take advantage of it.
The Pixel phone + Daydream combo is fast, has high pixel density, and high frame-rate, as compared to the Samsung GearVR experience. For some Daydream users there is flashing visible in the periphery with lighter colors, however the flashing is not as severe as that experienced with the GearVR.
Headset design is friendly and more gentle to your face than others of its type, though not quite as comfy as one might hope, depending on your face shape, due to relatively few adjustment parameters. We can use it for longer than other non-positional phone-based headsets, though not as long as the Vive, and both pale in comparison to the Playstation VR headset.
One design failing of the Daydream is the expectations it sets with the choice of fabric for the outside of the headset. The industrial design leads users to think it will be much more comfortable than it actually is. The thing is by no means any more uncomfortable to wear than say a Vive (in fact, it is generally more comfortable), but the Vive is also a large hard plastic lump you would never expect to curve and squish in all the right places.
Most of the “tech” of the headset is in the phone and the hand control, but the headset design does incorporate some passive features that greatly improve the experience of using the headset. An NFC tag in the headset automatically triggers VR mode in the phone. Then, when the headset is closed, it automatically detects the center of the phone and adjusts how the display is being shown. This is a fantastic feature compared to other headsets designed to accommodate a variety of phone sizes, which tend to have a fiddly adjust step that you sometimes have to redo while using the headset if you accidentally knock the phone out of alignment. You can see how the phone display change as the phone is moved in the the gif to the right. We hypothesize that this is implemented by the phone screen detecting the touch of the center rubber bumpers on the phone.
The phone is also unable to be used in the headset button-side down – this is probably a good thing, as it greatly decreases the risk of accidental button pressing.
The hand control is well designed and implemented. It’s not directly positionally tracked, but uses the internal gyroscope and accelerometer to give relative motion and gestural control. It would be too imprecise for direct hand tracking, but works well as a pointer along with the non-positionally tracked headset in a way you could not do if the headset were spatially tracked. Available content makes clever use of translating accelerometer gestures into actions that feel good, whether acting on objects at a distance or waving a magic wand.
There are right and left-handed settings for the controller that make it more ergonomic to use for input than a stick that doesn’t consider the natural angle of your hands.
It feels better than hand controls for the Hololens, for example. The Hololens hand tracking is technically impressive (given that it, too, is all done internally), but the interface attempts to interpret control in too literal a way for the technology to really succeed. Embodiment is cool, but not all motions should be taken literally!
With the Daydream, throwing a stick to play catch with an arctic wolf wouldn’t feel right if the stick attempted to stay with your hand and failed, but when you’re acting at a distance to throw a stick hovering in a museum diorama, it works. The larger holdable hand control also feels better than the tiny button interface of the Hololens, which seems unsure of whether it wants to exist or not.
Of course, you lose the magic of direct embodied hand manipulation that you can get with spatially tracked hands and heads, though I’m sure we’ll see untethered phone-based headsets with those capabilities come on the market in the next year or two. There’s absolutely nothing impressive about the technology of the Daydream hand control. It’s just used well, and in a way that is informative to future VR interface designs. It’s good to see people exploring that design thoroughly before it gets supplanted by spatially tracked controls and designers who may be reluctant not to take advantage of full spatial tracking when it becomes available, even if it gets in the way of the interface.
The obvious possible future design case, to me, would be when AR gets integrated in glasses-type headsets that connect to your phone for computing power and data. Then the phone itself has all the hardware it needs to be used for gestural controls in the same way as the Daydream control.
One piece of content I found particularly nice was the Fantastic Beasts app which mixes stereo spherical images with interactive animations in a fairly seamless way, to get photorealistic 3D backgrounds beyond what real-time 3D graphics could do for phoneVR right now. If we hadn’t worked with stereo spherical for so long, I’m not sure I would have noticed the mix. But of course, tilt your head and most of the scene un-meshes… except for the digital objects composited on! I definitely appreciate what they did with it. But perhaps next time they’ll remember not to use stereo film to capture low-hanging objects in the straight-up direction, because, as we’ve written about extensively, mathematics has got some problems with that.
We also enjoyed playing Mekorama, a 3D puzzle game that is also available for just regular, flat mobile play. While the VR aspect didn’t add anything particularly compelling to this game, it was an interesting use of the controller and highlighted both control strengths and weaknesses of the system. For example, as nice as the controller is, it was difficult to use for particularly fiddly “twitch” levels.
In our opinion, this headset is also one of the nicest for watching spherical video content. It’s entirely untethered and relatively lightweight and comfortable, and spherical video content doesn’t require any kind of spatial tracking.
2. Playstation VR Thoughts
We don’t really have much to say about this headset. Perhaps we got it too late to learn much from it. It’s a comfortable and smooth experience, probably the most comfortable headset out there, although the mechanism for putting it on is non-intuitive for most people. In general, it has some of the nicest industrial design of any headset. It’s nice that it’s inexpensive by virtue of working with previously-existing Playstation hardware (the headset uses the external camera tracking, hand controls, and computing power of the Playstation’s usual non-VR setup). It’s nice that as a package, you don’t have to wrestle with computer specs and windows updates and machine-specific bugs.
All the nice features that make it successful as a consumer product make it kind of boring for researchers like us. It’s designed for a front-facing sit-down play style that works with the cameras the Playstation already had, but that leads most of its content to be more like regular console content in 3D, rather than innovative new kinds of things. The single-headset multi-user content could have had potential since we’re interested in the new genre of asymmetric VR games, but the party games we tried were not terribly compelling and had little to learn from. The best single-headset multi-user game available for it appears to still be Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a game that has been around for a while and is available for multiple headsets. Still, it’s nice to see the Playstation VR doing well, and to see how a doing-well-thing looks.
One experience that utilizes the strengths and weaknesses of the platform nicely is Wayward Sky. Particularly in one scene in which the route to a secret bonus treasure is hidden in the peripheral vision of the player’s camera. If the player focuses too intensely on the character they are navigating through the terrain and fail to take in the wider world they will finish the level but fail to collect the treasure. It rewards the player for a kind of ambient attention specific to VR, in which you can see something our of the corner of your eye, get curious, and turn to explore it further.
Another game that plays well to the particular strengths of the headset is Super Hypercube (sadly nothing to do with actual hypercubes). In this 3D block-y tetris-esque game, the small ability to look around the 3D object so that you can figure out how to rotate and place it that is provided by the Playstation headset is perfect. You don’t need or want the ability to move around more, but you would definitely be hurt by only having rotational movement available to you as with a phone headset.
All three of these games (Keep Talking, Wayward Sky, and Hypercube) have been under development and/or available for some time. At least some of us first saw/tried all of them over a year (or two) ago. Over time, Keep Talking has shown it’s versatility by being fun and compelling across a variety of very different setups. The first version of Wayward Sky that I tried (in 2014 on the Gear VR) sometimes had jolting cuts that caused simulation sickness. The developers of the game really focused on designing to resolve these issues and it is now one of few games of it’s style that is playable by many people prone to simulation sickness for an extended period.
As more headsets come out it becomes clearer that instead of like phones, all striving for some standardized ideal, each headset is individual. We have had successful interesting immersive experiences in each of them, but exactly what made it feel great was very different in each case.
-The eleVR Team