Mobile virtual reality has been around since Samsung released the first Gear VR in December 2014. It was only a “Developer’s Edition,” but the device was the coolest new gadget on the block. Unlike the second Oculus Rift Developer’s Kit released in August 2014, you didn’t need an expensive PC and wires dangling everywhere on your body in order to experience VR.
Samsung has released several updated Gear VR headsets since then, and their latest is compatible with almost every Samsung smartphone released since 2015. However, Samsung now has some legit competition: Google’s Daydream View headset. Right now, Google’s headset only works with the Pixel, Pixel XL, and a few other smartphones from Huawei, Motorola and ZTE. However, Google claims to be working on support for several more headsets, including Samsung’s Galaxy S and Note series.
Let’s look at the most important aspects of both VR headsets and see which one provides the best immersive virtual reality experience.
Design and Comfort
There is no contest here: The cloth Google Daydream View is lighter and more comfortable than the plastic Gear VR. The Daydream view fit feels soothing, while the Gear VR fit, although it has improved, still feels a little cumbersome.
The Daydream View also makes it far easier to put your phone in the lens slot, whereas the Gear VR must attach to the USB slot on the bottom of your phone. Putting the Gear VR in the proper slot makes it feel like you are going to break (or at least scratch) your phone. The Daydream View doesn’t need a connection; all you need to do is put the phone behind the front cloth cover and tighten it. This is the main thing that will make the Daydream View eventually compatible with more smartphones.
While the Daydream View allows a more comfortable fit, it also allows more light to enter. However, the light that enters the Daydream View doesn’t produce an illusion of a small dark shadow around the corners of your vision like the very small amount of light that enters the Gear VR does. Because there isn’t as much room to breathe, the Gear VR also produces more fog on the lenses than the Daydream View. However, the Gear VR’s fog situation has improved since Samsung’s Developer’s edition, where people were using anti-fog liquid solutions for cars in order to stop annoying clouds from ruining the immersive experience.
Both headsets feature small hand controllers that allow you to control the software and play games. Before the 2017 version of the Samsung Gear VR, users had to put their fingers up against a control area on the headset and purchase a third-party Bluetooth joystick if they wanted to play games.
The spoon-like controllers on both devices operate as an extension of your hands, and you can even see the controllers in the virtual reality world. You’ll have to reset the Daydream View controller for accuracy more than you will with the Gear VR controller. As helpful of an addition as the controllers are for both mobile headsets, they fall far behind the hand controllers of desktop VR headsets like the HTV Vive.
Because the Gear VR has been out for a few years more, it has a far more robust software selection. Though both have apps for watching videos, the Oculus Theater app is better than anything offered on the Daydream View. Both have Netflix and Hulu, but these apps work smoother on the Gear VR than they do on Daydream View.
One thing is for certain: Even though the Gear VR has better apps, there are still only a handful of apps on both devices that users will use over and over again. For every Altspace VR app, there are several others that aim to provide 3D immersive environments without really engaging the user.
If you take a flight using either of these headsets and watch three hours of movies on a completely charged phone, you will arrive at your destination with a dead phone until you find a charger. Both the Daydream View and the Gear VR offer poor battery life, though the Gear VR has certainly improved since its arrival in late 2014.
The battery life, of course, is dependent on your smartphone. A Google Pixel XL will give you up to 45 minutes more than the regular Pixel will with the Daydream View, and the Samsung Galaxy S8+ will do the same with the Gear VR when compared to the Galaxy S8. You can charge both phones while they are in their VR headsets if you have a USB charger and plug. However, that is not suggested as the VR power already makes the phone hot enough before charging it at the same time.
Even though the Daydream View is better-looking, the Gear VR provides a better experience due to being around longer and having a better software ecosystem. Samsung has certainly improved their VR headset since its first appearance in 2014.
Still, neither the Samsung Gear VR or Daydream View provide the flawless mobile virtual reality experience consumers thought we would have by now. Like a marriage not meant to be, both of them offer an initial honeymoon excitement period that quickly wears off. The main problem is that consumers need better immersion (4K screens on future smartphones may save that), better comfort, and don’t want to worry about their smartphone battery depleting only after a few hours.
Mobile virtual reality may not take off until mobile headsets aren’t dependent on smartphones. You can expect to see this change happen within the next couple of years.
Daryl Deino is a writer, actor and civil rights activist who has appeared on shows such as The Untouchables, Parks and Recreation and Two Broke Girls. Besides writing for Observer, he has also written extensively about technology, entertainment and social issues for sites such as the Huffington Post, Yahoo News, Inquisitr and IreTron. Follow him on Twitter: @ddeino.