Virtual reality may well be the next big thing, but only if it gets a lot smaller. Many of the brightest minds in the fast-growing technology say the easiest path to making VR mainstream — easily accessible and portable headsets — is to take advantage of the basic technology we already carry with us: our phones.
With a major improvement in technological quality — and a push from the deep-pocketed likes of Google and Facebook — mobile VR headsets are starting to catch up to expensive, wired PC-based rigs like Facebook’s Oculus and HTC’s Vive.
“How will people discover VR?” Clint Kisker, the president and co-founder of Madison Wells Media, a firm that produces and distributes film, TV, virtual and augmented reality, live events and digital video, told TheWrap. “You have to start from the logical places. There are 300 million-plus iOS [the iPhone and iPad’s operating system] devices in the world.”
One of the stalwart products of this year’s CES Asia show was the Pico Neo DKS headset. It uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 processor — the same chip that powers some of the world’s most popular Android smartphones like Samsung’s Galaxy 7 and the HTC 10 — to deliver sharpness and smoothness that comes as close to Oculus and Vive.
Apple and Google are also making their own software much more VR-ready, while Facebook is working on a standalone mobile headset.
Up until now, there just aren’t that many people willing to spend thousands of dollars on a headset and high-end gaming PC, especially with the limited amount of professional quality VR content out there. And having essentially a rubber leash can provide an unwelcome jolt when exploring an immersive experience.
“The Vive is awesome and works very well,” Cosmo Scharf, the co-founder and chief experience officer of VR animation company Mindshow, told TheWrap. “But we talk to people, and the prospect of having to buy a $1,000 PC and set up this stuff in your apartment — it’s daunting.”
But mobile-based VR might be better suited to transform the technology from a niche novelty to something most of us consume — and even use to create.
At this point, choosing mobile VR means sacrificing computing power, a tough sell to companies that want to use the best tools. But not so long ago watching a video or browsing the web on a cellphone was an excruciating process. Then the iPhone arrived.
“Right now there’s this gap between the quality and interactivity of desktop VR versus the portability and affordability of mobile VR,” Scharf said. “Both have these great pros and cons. The company that’s able to bridge the gap and create an all-in-one product which has the best of both worlds at a reasonable price — that will create a technology that everyone can afford and wants to own.”
Mindshow, which allows anyone to strap on a Vive headset and hand controls and almost immediately jump into a VR cartoon, is expressly user-friendly — TheWrap was even able to act out a short part as a fish-man arguing with his wife at a bar after just a couple minutes of instruction.
But the level of technology and computing power that makes Mindshow so impressive still hasn’t arrived in mobile form.
Still, studios and production houses are keenly aware of the limits of PC-based VR even as they invest in new content for fear of being left out of what could be an entirely new, multibillion-dollar business.
And many see mobile VR as a way to bridge the gap to make new VR experiences more mainstream and grown the entire market.
“I’m a big believer in mobile VR,” Rick Rey, co-president of STXsurreal, the independent studio’s in-house virtual reality business, told TheWrap. “It’s going to usher in a whole new wave of adoption.”
Truly immersive virtual reality still requires more computing power than AR, but Apple and other phone manufacturers are embracing it, too — and it’s showing up in new products.
At last month’s VidCon, Google rolled out a new creator-friendly VR platform, 180VR, which lowers the technical bar to producing virtual reality content by focusing on what’s in front of the camera with an almost point-and-shoot level of simplicity.
Google also introduced its Daydream VR platform late last year, with support built in to the latest version of its Android operating system, only requiring a $79 Daydream View headset in addition to a cell phone to immediately jump into immersive virtual reality. (It’s the equipment that STXsurreal’s Rey says he’s most excited about.)
And Oculus owner Facebook is working on a standalone mobile VR headset reported to cost about $200.
“The mobile experience has been getting better every year,” Han Jin, the CEO and co-founder of VR camera manufacturer LucidCam, told TheWrap. “Starting with the first Samsung Gear VR which was so pixelated, the experience has improved drastically. And with phones getting 4K screens it will continue to improve.”
Still, the limited processing power of smartphones remains a chokepoint. “Right now, mobile VR is sort of cruising along at a bit of a plateau,” said John Hamilton, a former movie producer and distributor who is the CEO and founder of VR firm UNLTD. “We need a couple technological shifts.”
Future rigs are likely to be wireless and work through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Hamilton said, which will allow manufacturers to keep the heavy-duty computing power on the shelf — or in the cloud — and not strapped to users’ faces.
But as mobile VR headsets proliferate, the future of content could also become more democratized. After all, readily available mobile video — really the iPhone — opened the floodgates for user-generated content and turned YouTube into a disruptive entertainment force.
It might be virtual reality from the people that brings mobile VR to the people.
“User-generated content is the next driver of adoption,” Jin said.
Mindshow is betting on that transition with a clip show called “Mindshow Nuze” that integrates contributions from the Mindshow community with cartoons from the company’s creators.
Creating virtual reality cartoons may sound complicated, but so was shooting a simple video until the smartphone revolution made everyone an auteur.
“We have ideas of this awesome future where you can express yourself and get your ideas out and visualize your imagination in this way,” Scharf said.