Guest writer Joel Khalili returns to examine how cheap VR might not be the answer the industry is looking for.
The issue of price has loomed large over the virtual reality (VR) industry since its conception, and it’s one of the main barriers to entry for those curious about the technology. To purchase an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, including a PC powerful enough to run them, the consumer needs roughly £2000 burning a hole in their pocket.
Some companies, such as Samsung and Google, hoped to tackle this issue with cheaper, smartphone-powered offerings. Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream and Cardboard headsets represent a wrung of VR offerings that compromise on raw processing power in the name of affordability and portability, using a smartphone as a means of display.
At first, this seems like a sensible and even noble enterprise. How are we supposed to propel the adoption of VR, if the headsets are so wildly unaffordable, right? If premium headsets are considered a toy of people with more money than sense, how is VR expected to survive its infant stages?
However, there are hidden costs attached to undercutting the premium platforms with low-end offerings, which pose an even greater existential threat to the VR ecosystem.
Performance versus accessibility
Without getting too bogged down in the technical details, there is a huge performance gap between the Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, for instance. The latest Samsung smartphones are undoubtedly impressive pieces of tech—I even own one myself. However, when it comes to generating and running an interactive 3D environment, they don’t compare with high-end PCs, and nor should they be asked to.
The Gear VR could be described as a plug-in-and-play experience but, despite its convenience, the application library is shallow, and the system is prone to serious lag. It also lacks the facility to track the user’s physical movement, which means that using the Gear VR is much more like peering through a window into a virtual world, as opposed to actually stepping into one. The virtual world becomes an ornament to admire, rather than an immersive space to explore.
Portability is another of the Gear VR’s main draws – unlike the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, the headset is wireless. The reason the two premium headsets are unable to operate wirelessly is, in short, that current technology doesn’t allow it. It’s not possible to fit the processing power of a high-end PC into a package small or light enough to sit on the front of the face. For reference, the PC I use to run the Vive weighs 14.85kg. Not even the most impressive of (human) necks could withstand this kind of weight for an extended period. Again, here, the Gear VR sacrifices quality and performance in the name of convenience.
By providing a taste of what virtual reality makes possible, you might think that systems such as the Gear VR would serve to whet the player’s appetite for the technology. However, the reality is that those who experience VR for the first time through low-end platforms won’t necessarily attribute their limitations to the individual headsets. The risk is that they will make a blanket assumption about the entire VR ecosystem, and write it off as underwhelming and overhyped. Instead of whetting the appetite, the player’s hunger evaporates into thin air.
A false economy
With virtual reality, it’s very much the case that you get what you pay for.
In terms of price, after recent cuts, the HTC Vive will run you £499 GBP, and the Oculus Rift comes in slightly lower at £399. The latest iteration of Samsung Gear VR is sold for roughly £100, and the Google Daydream costs £75. Finally, Google Cardboard can be purchased for the modest fee of £5 or, by another metric, a three-course dinner at your local Wetherspoons.
The name Google has chosen for its cheapest device—the Cardboard—is evidence enough that it doesn’t take the platform seriously. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean consumers will connect the dots. Not because they’re brainless, but because they have no frame of reference, having never experienced virtual reality.
Because the price of smartphone-driven VR is drastically lower than premium offerings, many are turning to them as the first port of call. However, low-end VR is comparatively disappointing, especially in the context of the public’s lofty expectations of VR, as influenced by popular Sci-Fi. This means these systems are serving to dampen enthusiasm for virtual reality, dealing lasting damage to the health of the ecosystem.
Samsung and Google have disguised an attempt to capitalise on the considerable hype surrounding VR as an honest attempt to tackle the affordability problem.
The state of play
Words like “gimmick” and “fad” are nails down a chalkboard to VR enthusiasts, and they’re almost always levelled at virtual reality because the experience has been sampled using a low-end platform.
As a long history of television advertising tells us, first impressions are everything, and the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have been tarred with the same brush as their would-be relatives. It’s notoriously difficult to change someone’s mind after it’s already been made up, and first opinions on VR are currently dictated by its least impressive representatives.
It’s clear that for virtual reality to find its way into every household, it needs to become significantly cheaper. However, this price-drop needs to occur naturally, through a lengthy process of iteration and technological refinement. By exposing the consumer to a raft of sub-par and unrepresentative experiences, we’re in danger of dealing a fatal blow to VR’s longevity, before it’s been given a proper chance to demonstrate its merit.