Mobile VR. Not Good Enough, Too Much, Too Soon.

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The End Of Mobile VR- Is the epi-gimmick over?

A gateway into VR for many people, yet nowadays all but a thing of the past. Simple solutions such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Quest emerged in the mid-2010s, in an attempt to increase demand in VR applications by offering a low-cost way for consumers to experience media in an immersive format.

Such headsets didn’t feature a display of their own; in fact, they weren’t so much head-mounted displays as they were smartphone holders with a built-in lens. The user would enable a new software ecosystem on their phone adapted for VR media and place it into the headset, which they can then wear to interact with spatial games and view 360-degree video.

Many huge players in the tech world placed a lot of faith in mobile VR to revolutionise electronic media as we know it, but as you could probably guess by the fact you’re reading this article, they were proven wrong. Google and Samsung have both discontinued their solutions, and even fewer phones now support the technology to begin with.

But what went wrong?

Mobile VR split screen

Locked out

When you set up your phone as a VR display, you obviously couldn’t use it for anything else in that same session. This may not sound a big deal at first, but it actually proved to be a huge reason why Google’s Daydream View just didn’t take off according to a spokesperson for the tech conglomerate:

We saw a lot of potential in smartphone VR—being able to use the smartphone you carry with you everywhere to power an immersive on-the-go experience. But over time we noticed some clear limitations constraining smartphone VR from being a viable long-term solution.

Most notably, asking people to put their phone in a headset and lose access to the apps they use throughout the day causes immense friction. If you think about how often we use our phones for texting, emails and other everyday tasks, having to keep swapping in and out of VR mode alongside pulling it out of its phone case to put in the headset was bound to get frustrating very quickly. Users also noticed that they had to charge their phone more often as intensive VR apps guzzled system resources and drained battery life in a flash. All in all, they probably spent more time taking their phone out and putting it back in, than actually using the headset!

Hot, hot, hot

As well as guzzling battery juice, many VR apps were so resource-intensive, they could make the phone very hot to use. Being insulated inside the headset didn’t cool it down either.

The rise of the headset

It also seemed that mobile VR came into the tech world at a very bad time. Just as viewers like the Samsung Gear and Google Daydream were emerging on the market, so were purpose-built headsets.

In the advent of its release, mobile VR offered significant advantages over more expensive headsets: the technology was portable, lightweight, and self-contained, not to mention more affordable. But it wasn’t too long before purpose-built headsets started to tick these boxes too, and without the aforementioned limitations of mobile VR to boot.

Lackluster apps

With the purpose-built headset increasing in popularity, consumers then came to realise that the smartphone VR viewer just couldn’t keep up.

First of all, the smartphone was limited to only about three degrees of vision, so the visuals could only adapt to reflect limited changes in head movement. Meanwhile, more high-end devices such as the Oculus Quest boasted the ability to support apps where users could move around in a virtual space. These kinds of applications proved to be much more convincing for consumers; after all, the point of VR is to escape into a whole new interactive world, not just look through a lens into a stationary display.

It also seemed that the devices didn’t have much in the way of luring new users into regular VR gamers either. Jay Peters, a journalist working for The Verge, recounted his experiences with the Google Cardboard viewer. He didn’t feel that compelled:

I just don’t think there were many compelling uses for Cardboard, beyond its initial novelty. I remember playing with a free Cardboard viewer from one of Google’s promotions with The New York Times, and while it was really cool that one time I used it, I haven’t been clamoring for another Cardboard experience since.

One size definitely doesn’t fit all

Phones these days come in different shapes and sizes. You can’t just buy an iPhone case and expect a Samsung Galaxy to be a perfect fit – you’d have to consider the difference in dimensions as well as placement of the camera. A smartphone VR headset was essentially a phone case with lenses, so it couldn’t accommodate for every phone.

Key reasons why mobile VR has to be left behind

  • It’s hard enough having bespoke built HMD screens within mm of your eyes, let alone that of your mobile
  • Low quality, bad experience, headaches & eye-strain
  • Low quality experience harms high-quality deliverables
  • Creates a novelty of premium and highly effective VR experiences
  • Limits accessibility to phone-only compatibles
  • Delivers an unauthentic virtual experience

What now?

While it’s a stretch to say smartphone VR is dead, it didn’t exactly take off as well as some hoped. Equally it simply didn’t perform.

In truth, it genuinely harmed the VR industry, and we’re glad to see it’s end. Whilst offering accessibility, this positive can only be seen as mild, because there is no point in providing accessibility to a technology that delivers an ineffective base-line experience, ESPECIALLY to new users.

In November 2019, a month after Google discontinued its Daydream View VR headset, the tech giant hit the final nail in the coffin for their smartphone VR projects: Google Cardboard became open source. Google acknowledged that, despite the platform’s lacklustre sales and sharp decline in usage, it was an excellent gateway to VR for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. While this development will help those interested in the technology continue to make good use of it in education and entertainment, it’s definitely made something clear as day: Google, like several other companies, have accepted that the future of VR won’t be phone-based.

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