Tech Yourself: Virtual Reality on the Micro Screen


Most of the headlines for virtual reality lend themselves to Vive or Oculus, and, right now, especially PlayStation VR, which launched Thursday (and let’s not forget the Star VR; no one forgot that, right?). The crazy thing is that they weren’t even the first modern VR headsets to come to the market. That honor belongs to the Samsung Gear VR.

Granted, Samsung co-developed that device with VR’s resident rich kid, Oculus. By that point, it was a healthy Kickstarter and $2 billion buyout into its life. Gear VR worked by simply using the power of your Samsung phone as a display. Thus, mobile VR was born.

Phones have the advantage of a small, high-resolution screen, gyroscope, accelerometer and the fact that most everyone in the modern world has one. Not every smartphone is VR enabled, but Digitimes predicts that up to 70 million VR-enabled phones will ship this year alone. But in the time since the launch of the Gear VR, we’ve seen a variety of third-party kits that clamp down on phones and open the world to the wonders of sitting next to a guy with no spatial awareness

There’s the wonderfully DIY-seeming Google Cardboard, VR KIX, LG 360 VR and, most recently, the Google Daydream. The search-engine giant has slowly been taking steps into the virtual world. They developed their Jump camera rig to capture full 360-degree angles (wrap your head around that one), Google Expeditions to give children and adults alike the chance to virtually explore far off places and museums, and of course the previously mentioned Google Cardboard.

The addition of Daydream is significant, though. Everything up until now from the company has been experimental or educational. This is a commercial product for the masses. Pixel, Google’s new phone, is also being launched with Daydream as a separate but compatible companion device.

Now, what does this all mean for VR? Well this could be its saving grace. Unlike the moving target that is PC development, where the amount of gear to account for is a mountain of work alone, these phone companies are doing the work in-house. This means they are only worried about their own hardware/software compatibility. That’s less research and development time on lower-priced devices. Less cost for them means less costly for the consumers. Sony is in a similar situation with the PlayStation 4, which is why they are estimated to sell 2.6 million PlayStation VR units this year.

Right now, VR is niche. It’s a hobby for the highest-of-ends gamer. Phones are the gateway to everyone else. It just needs that killer app. For example, Super Mario 64 got people looking at the polygonal worlds, Nintendogs pushed DSs off shelves, and Wii Sports sold people on motion controls (Nintendo is really good at selling people weird ideas). Mobile VR needs its Candy Crush. Perhaps the developer of Candy Crush can crack the code.

Virtual reality is the Wild West. It’s a disjointed wasteland where anything goes, full of weird social experiments and tech demos. There’s still no good infrastructure on a VR storefront even. But phones are the most open and least talked about entry point.