A consumer-ready version of the Oculus Rift may still be a ways off, but already its promise of truly immersive virtual reality has spawned quite a few innovative projects based around it. Maybe it comes as no surprise then that not one, but two devices that may offer a similar VR experience through a smartphone have popped up on Kickstarter – on the same exact date no less. Both the vrAse and the 360specs are a pair of goggles that can be fitted with a smartphone or tablet to view 3D movies and games with no additional hardware required.
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In terms of their basic operation, there doesn't appear to be much difference between the vrAse and the 360specs. Like the Oculus Rift, both headsets use special lenses over each eye so the wearer perceives two sides of a stereoscopic image as one. This gives the appearance of a 3D display that encompasses most of their field of view. Unlike the Rift though, each pair of goggles displays an image with a smartphone that's been snapped into place instead of a built-in screen connected to a computer.
In a way, it makes sense to substitute a smart device for dedicated displays, since most models already contain the necessary HD screen, computing power, accelerometers, and gyroscopes to create a VR world that users can explore with somewhat accurate head tracking. The main drawback is that playing games or interacting with the phone in any way other than by moving your head requires a separate controller. Users also can't really walk around while wearing the goggles yet, though both product developers have plans to implement augmented reality that uses a smartphone or tablet's camera.
Let's take a look at these two new VR headsets:
The 360specs was invented by Ray Latypov, who knows a thing or two about virtual environments, having previously created the Virtusphere, a hollow ball that allows VR-equipped users to move about freely. Latypov and his New York-based development team built the first working prototype of their goggles almost one year ago and have been refining the design for better comfort and optics ever since.
To view any virtual reality with the 360specs, users simply bring up a stereoscopic 3D image or app on their smart device, slide it into the top of the headset, and fit it over their head with the strap. Once it's snug enough to not let in any external light, they can adjust the distance between the lenses and the screen for better clarity or shift the optical axis of the lenses to match the space between their own eyes. Add a pair of ear buds, and the wearer can remain completely engrossed inside a virtual world.
Of course the immersiveness of the 360specs increases along with the size of the smart device that's been fitted to it. According to the developers, a gadget with a 5 – 7-inch screen will often work best, but anything with a screen as small as 3.5 inches will still provide a decent VR sensation. The designers have compared watching a movie on a 7-inch tablet or phablet to sitting in front of a 130-inch television screen that's slightly wrapped around you, for example. To accommodate as many models of smart devices as possible, the team plans to produce the four variants of the 360specs in different sizes.
The 360specs team is hoping to raise US$100,000 with their Kickstarter campaign and bring the headset into mass production. Right now, backers can pre-order the 360specs at a cost of $39 and up, depending on the size of their smart device. The first batch is expected to ship in February of 2014 and will include a few samples of 3D movies, pictures, and apps for users to try out.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the vrAse was recently revealed by a development team based in Scotland. Much like the 360specs, users simply have to launch a stereoscopic 3D image or app on their smartphone and then position it inside the front of the case, though this VR headset requires the device to be slipped in from the side instead of the top.
The main bulk of the headset is made from lightweight plastic to ensure wearing comfort, and strategic vents allow for some air flow to keep the screen from fogging without allowing any outside light in. Both lenses and the case can also be adjusted to provide a clearer picture across various smartphones and users, and the developers claim the vrAse can be used for hours without causing any eye strain.
Rather than providing differently-sized models, the vrAse employs a modular design, so new cases and lenses can be swapped in when needed. According to the designers, the vrAse has been optimized for the top six best-selling smartphones from last year (the iPhone 5, HTC One, Xperia Z, Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4, and Galaxy Note 2), but they are also offering an alternate case that will fit any smart device with a screen size of 3.5 - 6.3 inches. For the best picture however, they recommend a gadget with a screen size between 5 and 6 inches.
Aside from viewing movies, pictures, and apps, the vrAse team has already stated they have high hopes the goggles will become a useful tool for augmented reality programs by using a connected device's camera. They've even gone so far as to recommend it as a hands-free method for filming POV video.
The vrAse designers are also running a Kickstarter campaign right now to begin mass manufacturing their device, but with a goal of £55,000 (about $86,000). Anyone who contributes £58 ($90) or more can sign up to receive some of the first headsets produced, which the design team also plans to ship in February of 2014. Backers can choose between two different versions of the vrAse: the smooth, white Origin model or the angular, black Mist model.
Dueling VR goggles
Strange as it sounds, it looks like there's already some stiff competition in the “VR headsets for smartphones” market. In general, the vrAse appears to sport a much sleeker design, while the 360specs seems to accommodate a wider variety of smartphones and tablets. Either one however could be a more affordable VR option than pre-ordering a $300 Oculus Rift developer kit, depending on how clear an image the inserted smart device can provide.
Both design teams plan to offer SDKs for any interested developers, though there's quite a bit of stereoscopic 3D content available online already. Plus, as both design teams have pointed out, users can stream plenty of games and movies from their computers to their mobile devices as well or just watch 2D content as if it were on an extra large screen. The two teams behind these separate products also envision VR headsets being used for more basic functions like reading e-books, checking emails, or going over spreadsheets, but that sounds a bit less practical.
There may be quite a few advantages to using a smartphone over the built-in screen of the Oculus Rift, such as greater portability and being able to upgrade the screen size and resolution by swapping in a newer smart device. On the other hand, not having a dedicated screen means all the image adjustments are left up to the user, which could have less than desirable results. We'll just have to see how the final product matches up with the developers' claims.
For now, check out the two videos below to see some of the different uses for the vrAse and 360specs.