Welcome to Google's NYC home

Google's pop-up shop in SoHo is the best place to see the company's new hardware.

Google has made minimal forays into real-world retail shops thus far. There's a good reason for that: The company has long been more focused on software than hardware. That's slowly changing, but Google went all-in on its own hardware brand when it announced the new Pixel smartphones, Google Home, Daydream VR headset and Google WiFi router earlier this month.

For most consumers, buying hardware sight-unseen is still a tough proposition, so Google is finally making it easier for consumers to check out all its new gadgets -- in New York City, at least. The company's pop-up retail location opened its doors this morning, and while it wasn't exactly an iPhone-level stampede, there were a couple dozen people waiting to get in when it opened. A steady stream of passers-by came through in the hour I spent at the store.

It's worth noting that Google's space isn't actually a store: You can't buy any products here, not even the Pixel phones, which just went on sale this morning. Google will help you buy one online or direct you to the nearby Best Buy to pick one up, but no one will be walking out of the Google pop-up with a new Pixel phone, Daydream headset or even a Chromecast.

Instead, it's all about the experience, and the Google pop-up certainly features a bunch of weird but intriguing ways to show off its products. It's as much visual spectacle as it is a space for product demos — just take the "Pixel wall" that greets you when you walk in. It's a giant mechanical wall with dozens of rotating colored blocks (or pixels) that can display various images. A Google spokesperson said it was meant to be a physical representation of the screens we look at constantly, and it definitely sets the quirky tone that you'll find throughout Google's space.

There were two product display areas that clearly stood out: Google Home and Daydream. Despite the fact that trying Daydream involves covering up your eyes, Google didn't skimp on the Daydream area's design: A whimsical 180-degree forest scene set the stage for what you'd see when you slip the headset on. It was designed to match the Daydream "home screen." Something simpler would have worked -- but Google's shop is all about every step of the experience, so it needed to put effort into these design flourishes, even if they don't directly affect the product demo.

The Google Home demo areas were just as elaborate. The pop-up shop featured both a living room and kitchen, closed off from the rest of the store, both tricked out with Google Home and WiFi devices. The living room also had a 4K TV hooked up to the new Chromecast Ultra. Visitors can enter the rooms and ask Google Home a bunch of questions -- each room has prompts around to give you an idea of the types of things you can ask it. In the living room, you can ask it to start playing video on the TV or adjust the lights, while the kitchen had prompts to play a "making dinner" playlist, among others.

For the Pixel phones, Google chose to focus primarily on photos. It's not the easiest thing to show off in a store, but Google's giant photo sphere proved to be a good demonstration of the Google Photos backup app. Three Pixel phones spread around the sphere let users change which pictures were on display, and the phones themselves did that by cycling through various searches in the app (bridges, graffiti, selfies, and so forth). In that way, Google employees working the store can talk about the intelligence of the Google Photos app that lets you search for images without tagging them. Plus, it looks very, very cool.

There's also a special area to show off the Pixel's low-light photography bona fides -- a small, curtained room off to the side of the photo sphere is filled with LED light strings coming down from the ceiling that create some pretty dazzling visual patterns. Naturally, there's a Google employee in the room with a Pixel, ready to snap your picture standing amongst the lights so you can see just how well the camera works in dark conditions.

Aside from those displays, there wasn't a lot else to show off with the Pixel -- Google has the obligatory large demo table with devices playing a loop of various features. But the Google Assistant isn't easy to show off on a phone in a loud store. But at least you can get your hands on the devices, see how they feel, snap some shots on the camera and play around with the slightly tweaked version of Android on display here.

Beyond just seeing what Google was showing off, I wanted to see how the public was reacting to the pop-up shop. Most of the people I talked with knew the shop was coming, though a few said they just saw it while walking by and wanted to see what was going on. Simon, visiting from Switzerland, told me that "I knew about the shop ahead of time, but just because I walked by two days earlier and saw it being set up." He said he came to see the Pixel phone mostly and wants to buy one, but also wanted to check out other stuff like Home that he wasn't necessarily going to buy.

Ash, a New York City resident, said he knew about the shop ahead of time and came because he "wanted to see what the Home could do; it's fun to see it in action." And Patrick from Brooklyn said he was "impressed with Google's setup, especially that huge photo globe." But he also said his Nexus 6P was good enough still that he wasn't itching to upgrade. Surprisingly, I didn't see a lot of other Nexus devices in the crowd, but there were plenty of iPhone-toting visitors checking out Google's latest.

If you're in New York City between now and the end of the year, and you're a fan of what the company is doing, a quick stop at Google's shop (at 96 Spring St.) should be a priority. Right now, there's no good way to get a sense of how Google Home works unless you stop in here. And while you can check out the Pixel at Verizon and Best Buy stores, you'll definitely get a more immersive and fun experience here. It's just too bad you can't walk out with a shiny new phone.