Next Next Gen VR

Posted by on Nov 14, 2017 in Hardware, Virtual Reality

A tale of two cities…if by “cities” we mean “VR experiences”.

On one shore, we have the high-end solutions like the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and Microsoft’s third-party HMDs. These devices are the forerunners of the 21st century VR push, with high-resolution displays requiring beefy PCs to run. While users can enjoy six degrees of freedom (6DoF), it comes at the price of being tethered to a desktop or high-end laptop.

On the other shore, the lower-end solutions like Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR. These offerings require that you have a compatible smartphone that you insert into a face-mounted frame. Most of the input for these devices is handled by a small remote control, although you can find bargain-bin headsets on Amazon that will hold your phone and offer a mediocre but passable VR experience.

While the tech sites have been focusing mostly on the higher-end devices and the promises they’ve been making for the future of VR, it’s the lower end solutions that have had the most wiggle room. Enter the HTC Vive Focus, and the Oculus Go.

These two devices are either the natural evolution of smartphone-based VR or a head-smackingly obvious answer to what seemed to be a hack: instead of relying on a headset that works with the phone you have, why not just build the processing into the headset itself? Not only does this give you the same (or, ideally, better) experience that you get with the phone VR, it’s 100% portable and smaller than their higher-powered cousins. While the HTC Vive Focus is going to be launching first in China in order to serve the exploding Chinese VR market, the Oculus Go is set to launch elsewhere sometime in 2018 for around $199.

I’ve tried phone-based VR, and it worked well, although I only had a cheap headset with no Bluetooth support. The biggest issue with these phone-holder headsets is that unless the set is designed specifically for the model of phone you have, you’re going to be fitting a square peg in an octagonal hole; yes, it will probably fit, but you won’t get the best experience possible. Another issue was device heat. Pushing pixels required for VR on a smartphone is no simple task, and doing so makes the phone incredibly hot. And although phone VR can offer some engaging experiences, I say that only because I expect that it can, not that I actually experienced anything mind-blowing. There were only so many roller-coaster simulators I could stand. But this is the same issue the higher-end VR headsets have: feeling-out content as devs come to grips with the limits of the tech, and what consumers are willing and able to consume.

I like this step, though. $199 is, as stated, almost an “impulse buy”. According to the articles linked above, John Carmack believes that the phone-based VR will continue to dominate this level mainly because everyone already has a smartphone, and that means docking headsets can be offered for so much cheaper. My Google Pixel has Daydream pre-installed, although I don’t have a headset that can take advantage of it. As the tech improves (as is always the caveat), then the experience can improve, and so while we will certainly continue to improve on the high-end devices, it may be these lower-end, self-contained headsets that make VR palatable for the masses in the end.

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