Why Google Daydream might beat the Samsung Gear VR in 2017
Google Daydream View is "intriguing, but not yet ready for primetime" and lags behind its (only) mobile VR headset competitor, the Samsung Gear VR. But gaps between these rivals should tighten over the next year and Daydream could even come out on top, thanks to a few key advantages.
These observations are based on the 2016 editions of these headsets. It's entirely possible that one or both companies will release radically different hardware in the new year, but going off their current trajectories, I'm Team Daydream for the following reasons.
On the Gear VR, you're either swiping the touchpad built into the headset, or you're using a standard third-party gamepad. Neither input method reproduces VR gestures that mimic your real-world hand movements.
Daydream ships with a controller that doesn't look like much, but it contains an accelerometer and gyroscope – almost like a Nintendo Wii controller – so some of your real-life movements can be channeled through virtual reality. Compared to the Gear VR, it comes much closer to offering a hands-on feel. Don't expect it to rival Oculus Touch, since it does not have positional tracking, but at least the two feel (distantly) related.
We're still waiting for Daydream content that truly capitalizes on what the controllers are capable of, but there are a few titles that offer glimpses. For example, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not a full-length adventure game, but it does have you brandishing the controller like a magic wand. It would be exciting to see a more sophisticated rendition of this kind of physical spell-casting.
The consumer Gear VR was first introduced last year. It's only compatible with Samsung Galaxy S6 phones and newer (six phones in total)
Daydream just hit shelves in November. At its launch, Google Pixel and Pixel XL were the only Daydream-ready devices. Since then, Moto Z and Moto Z Force have jumped on the Daydream wagon.
There have not been official confirmations about which phones will be compatible next, but it's hard to imagine many manufacturers of high-end Android phones opting out of Google's certification. I expect that most of 2017's major Android flagships will work with Daydream.
The Gear VR plugs into the port at the bottom of your phone. Once it's snapped in, the top of the phone is held into place with another prong, meant to keep the phone mounted flush against the headset. You insert your phone while it's on the home screen, and the Gear VR library automatically fires up once it's mounted.
No matter which headset you use, mobile VR's major limitations lay not with the headsets, but with the phones that power them. At this point, both the Gear and Daydream are subject to smartphone display quality and processing power. Headset differences are minor compared to the platform and hardware powering them.
Of course, this dynamic would change if either headset manufacturer makes dramatic technological improvements. Samsung/Oculus seem more likely to win this race: Oculus CTO John Carmack has referred to his own efforts to bring positional tracking to Gear VR, but there's no word on whether those efforts are coming to fruition. Positional tracking – that is, the ability to track your below-the-neck movement through space – would be a complete game changer. Gear VR would leave Daydream in the dust if it were to implement this exclusively.
On the other hand, Google has the obvious advantage in software platform development, and its release of the well-regarded Pixel phones suggest its growing potential in hardware manufacturing as well. Making 2017 predictions based on 2016 hardware, I expect that the Daydream will incrementally take over the top spot in mobile VR. There's a small chance the Oculus will pull out some big guns in a 2017 Gear VR update, but I think that's more likely further into the future.