The VR Headset Nobody is Building

 

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?

Fab Gear!

2014 was a banner year for WebGL and my wallet. The consulting business took off and I even started seeing royalty checks from my O’Reilly Books (beer money FTW)!

So with the tax year end looming, I thought I should take a few more write-offs. I decided to drop serious coin on VR hardware, including a ridiculously powerful new Windows laptop (derp) that is only slightly smaller than my Prius, and a Samsung Gear VR with a companion Galaxy Note 4 phone that I would otherwise have zero use for. ($1000 dollars – cheap!) I made these purchases with some reservation – after all, I am Mr. DIYVR, and I’ve been quite vocal about the need for devices that anybody can afford. Well, right now I can afford ’em, so – there it is.

I had seen a few early demos of Gear VR and was pretty impressed. But I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love the retail version. Here’s me in our kitchen, enjoying my first postprandial trip through this mobile version of the Oculus Rift. Somewhat surprisingly, I kept my dinner down just fine. No motion sickness to speak of. And I stayed in there longer than I have ever stuck around in a Rift, playing games, flying through space and watching movie trailers.

tonyGearVR

Design-wise, I know, I know: I’m just another White Guy Wearin’ a Rift.  But this thing is way more sleek than that bucket they call the DK2. And look Ma: no wires.

But this isn’t the important part. It’s what’s inside that counts. Instead of blindly groping for a keyboard, or wildly waving my arms in front of me, I simply tapped the touch pad on the side of the headset to interact with the games and apps. Instead of continually removing the device to select a new game to launch, I merely swiped the touch pad to move through a gorgeous interface they’re calling the Oculus Store. It’s simple and beautiful, like the Xbox interface but in full 3D:

oculus-store-samsung-gear-vr

Now this is the shit. I need to make the interface to Third Eye as good as this – but for browsing the whole web. So that’s my new mission. Wish me luck D-)

In the meantime, kudos to Samsung and Oculus on making the first high-production, consumer-ready VR for realz. If they can get the price down, then we’ve really got something. This fab device is, well, “it’s gear.”