The VR Headset Nobody is Building

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Let’s just put this out there right now: the future of VR is mobile. Morpheus, Vive and Rift will make a big splash in the living room, but for sheer numbers we are going to see maybe 10x the number of mobile VR headsets in the next few years. I’m not here to debate the point. It’s just the way I think it’s going to play out. If you don’t agree, then nothing to see here, feel free to move on.

Still with me? Then riddle me this: why isn’t anybody building the “iPod Touch of VR?” That is, a separate, dedicated, fully contained VR device capable of running apps, games and videos, retailing for $300–500. It seems to me that this is what the world needs, and I have to wonder out loud why it doesn’t exist.

The Cardboard VR approach, where you can put your existing phone into a cheap housing, seems SO sensible. The total cost of ownership is next to nothing, as low as twenty bucks, and you don’t need to get a new phone. The cardboard box will likely be succeeded by evolutionary advances like the plastic Wearality Sky. It’s more durable, has a wider field of view and maybe most importantly, it folds nicely and fits in your pocket. Gizmos like this cost a bit more, but they’re still under a hundred bucks, and therefore could become a wildly popular phone accessory and, as advertised, be the entry point to VR for most consumers.

Problem is, with Cardboard VR, quality is all over the map. Only the highest-resolution phones provide a decent experience. And until Google and Apple unclog the awful refresh rate of the built-in accelerometer, even the best Cardboard VR will start making you motion sick after a couple of minutes. That development looks like it’s a year or so out. So for the moment, Cardboard is still Street VR: the stuff of parties, promotions and live event giveaways. And a nice stocking-stuffer.

Then there’s Gear VR. I love Gear VR. It’s the closest thing I have seen to realizing the true promise of VR, and I believe I’ve tried them all. Gear VR is not at the fidelity level of the Vive or the Rift CV, but so what? It’s lightweight and comfortable, the apps are plentiful and cheap, and the experiences are good enough to keep me in there for an hour or more. Oh and look ma: no wires.

Gear VR has shown the path to usable, mobile VR. However, it only works with two phones. These are phones that, before I wanted to play with Gear VR, I didn’t own. Of course I went out and bought them, but I don’t think most people are going to buy a different phone just to do VR… especially at the price point. I do think that Note 4 and S6 owners will find the Gear VR to be a nifty accessory, maybe even a must-have in the next few years. And perhaps prospective Samsung phone buyers will view Gear as part of a Samsung ecosystem and yet another reason to make the purchase.

What I would buy, and what nobody seems to be building, is a dedicated VR appliance: the display, headset and brain are all in one unit that’s basically a phone without the 4G. It can’t make calls, but it can do WiFi to download everything. It has sensible, ergonomic input accessories bundled with it. Under the hood, it’s probably just Android or iOS (or Windows 10 mobile, maybe? hint hint) with a VR shell. And it just works. I would lay out a cool $500 for this product. I’m sure many, many other early adopters would. Then, a few years out, legions more would take the plunge when the price drops to $300.

Note to phone manufacturers: this wouldn’t replace phones, or cannibalize sales in any way. In fact, app developers could design products that use the VR headset and the phone together, with the phone as a controller or input device. It’s sort of like the way watches and phones are starting to work together now. So this could sell more phones, in addition to selling another VR device. Oh and by the way, I don’t want my primary phone to be stuck in a VR headset. I want it to make calls, and all the other stuff it already does. So I’d rather have another device anyway. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this.

So what I’m saying is, phone people: this is a new product you can sell.

So why isn’t anybody building it?

7 thoughts on “The VR Headset Nobody is Building

  1. Looking in from the outside, it was my biggest surprise (and deception) to learn you actually need a phone to DO VR… I always had thought it was a once piece all intergrated device… And that is what it ought to be… and that is what it will be Tony… People are just super slow to think through stuff…. still don’t know wny… but I am glad what I thought VR was is what YOU say it should be…. Virtual Thanks. Chef JAy

  2. Stumbed on your blog. I was the founder of a company called ThirdMotion – we folded last year (2014) but we were doing Unity 3D on mobile devices, with some interesting face creation software — eventually moving toward healthcare post-op / rehab applications (visualizing exercises, paths to wellness, etc).

    In any case, there is no business case that I can see for Hi def experiences, where a low def one will do just fine. I don’t quite understand the arms race on fidelity when there isn’t really a big market yet. In fact no one that I’m aware of in academia or commercially has shown that higher fidelity = more immersive. I interviewed dozens of real world people (think central valley CA) about whether they would use the tech — a lot of fear and distrust, plus the logistics of them actually using it — the thought of them adopting a Rift experience is absurd. But lightweight and accessible devices that communicate via wire or wireless would help; I like the Gear VR a lot too.

    More to your point – I was really excited about project Tango, but its real- time 3D mapping is glitchy and tries to be too perfect. I believe a two-camera device that can create 3D space easily from a few 360’s in real space, paired with the ability to render your experience (1st / 3rd person) it in VR well, is a killer device.

  3. I wouldn’t be surprised if a self contained kit is being worked on by someone. Right now the VR market has so little traction though I doubt anyone is willing to put serious money into it until we know for certain that VR (this time around) is the next big thing.

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