When today's virtual reality devices first hit the scene, we expected mobile VR to progress and grow at a striking pace. Fast forward to the present: Little has changed in mobile VR – to the point that its slow evolution could be dragging down the mainstream adoption of virtual reality as a whole.
To illustrate our point, we need to look no further than the Samsung Gear VR and its only real competitor, the Google Daydream View. These two headsets are the major players in the mobile VR space, and while we found several reasons to get excited about them initially, their shortcomings and lack of progress have our enthusiasm waning.
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Let's start with the Gear VR – a headset that came to fruition through Samsung's partnership with Oculus. Oculus (which was acquired by Facebook in 2014) is the maker of the PC-powered Rift, perhaps the best-known VR headset in the world. At CES 2015, Oculus Product VP Nate Mitchell told us to expect a game of lead-and-follow between the Rift and Gear VR – that the Gear VR would catch up to the Oculus Rift prototypes before too long.
Even if we took that claim too literally, that prediction has fallen laughably short. A third consumer edition of the Gear VR was just announced, and while it adds a controller (prompted, no doubt, by the nearly identical one from the Daydream View), our initial impressions point at the same Gear experience we've been seeing since launch. With the exception of incremental changes in field of view, connectors and color, the headset itself is nearly unchanged.
The same goes for the overall quality of its content library. While some good titles have been added over the past couple of years, we mostly see the Oculus Store proliferating with low-quality experiences, versions of mobile and arcade-influenced games that do little to reflect the capabilities and unique qualities of the medium. Many of our favorite experiences have been available since launch, or close to it.
It's true that developers making games for mobile VR have to deal with the expectations of consumers: Oculus Rift owners wouldn't flinch at a $30 or $40 game, but most people don't expect to pay very much (if at all) for a mobile game. However, we think that obstacle could be overcome with truly impressive mobile headsets.
The content library for the Google Daydream is even more anemic in both quantity and quality. And despite being poised to be compatible with many more Android-running handsets, only six phones - the Pixel, Pixel XL, Moto Z, Asus ZenFone, Huawei Mate 9 and ZTE Axon 7 – are Daydream-ready. Mobile VR is clearly not a priority for most phone makers.
We do appreciate some of the Daydream's minor details, like its soft covering and easy phone mounting. However, its controller – and that of the Gear VR – highlight the inadequacies of mobile VR instead of inching it closer to its PC-powered counterparts.
For instance, why only the one motion controller? To truly simulate hands in games you need two of them (a la Oculus Touch), so the current setup is limited to Wii remote types of experiences, where you point the remote at something and click. It's a step forward from the trackpad built into the headset on previous models, but still a very far cry from "having hands" inside Rift and HTC Vive experiences.
And will we see positional tracking (where the headset tracks your movement through space, beyond just head rotation) in mobile VR anytime soon? Without it, when you move the world moves with you (instead of you moving through the world) – hardly the most immersive way to show off VR to newcomers.
Apart from underwhelming hardware and software developments, there's a very real nausea issue in mobile VR: Even if you do have a mobile VR headset and you find a game that keeps you riveted, the spins that stem from a temple-pinching, fixed-focus display could very well put you out of commission. That may be the biggest problem that positional tracking would help with.
The far-reaching problem with middling experiences like these is that they don't generate consumer excitement for higher-end virtual reality. Mobile VR devices are positioned to be affordable entry-level glimpses into the possibilities of VR, yet we'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint a mobile VR experience compelling enough to encourage a $1,000+ investment on a PC-powered VR setup. There even seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for it within the smartphone industry, based on the lack of flagships rushing to become Daydream-ready.
Mobile VR has trailed so far behind PC-powered experiences that the two hardly seem related. If mobile VR headsets are ever going to intrigue the masses, they need to progress forward in leaps and bounds, or else they could scare off consumers from seeing the very real potential in VR as a whole.