Mobile phone VR is dying out. Good.
Why the shift in direction by mobile manufacturers benefits both VR and AR
In October 2019, Google announced that they would be discontinuing their Google Daydream VR headset. Coupled with Samsung declaring their latest phones will not be compatible with their Gear VR headset, it’s safe to say that mobile phone VR – if not completely dead – is on its way out. Quite right too – it’s time VR is given the space it needs to be done right.
A help and a hindrance
In the early days of VR, when Google Cardboards were making everyone queasy and the Oculus DK2 had a months-long lead time, the onset of proper mobile phone VR was a revelation – confirming that this platform was the next big thing. And it was great – VR was easily accessible, and it offered pretty much the only practical alternative to tethered headsets that relied on pricey PCs. Samsung were even giving away headsets with their S6 and S7 handsets for a while!
But it was also problematic – the quality of the experience would sometimes cause motion sickness – effectively traumatising a significant percentage of VR’s potential audience – and the phones themselves would often overheat and stop working, let alone losing most of their battery in a short space of time. Naturally over time mobile phone headsets improved – but so did all VR tech. And by that time, the damage had already been done. There was a perception that mobile phone VR was the only cost-effective, and therefore realistic, option for consumers – and it just wasn’t good enough.
The game changers
The change came from companies like Oculus and HTC who invested, researched and developed heavily in standalone headsets that gave a PC-like quality experience without the need for a mobile phone – and at a price point that would compete with a mobile phone handset/headset combination. Since the Oculus Go hit the market over two years ago, the standard for standalone VR headsets has just got better and better. Today, the Oculus Quest is considered to be one of the best headsets you can get – offering high-end graphics, an easy to use interface, quality hardware, long battery life and genuinely fun experiences that are unlikely to have you reaching for the sick bucket.
This is what VR should be. And without the mobile phone option muddying the waters, it allows good quality, highly effective VR technology to take centre stage. Better technology equals better capability and potential for ever greater content and valuable usage. What’s more, the Quest alone will only put you back £400 all in, compared to at least £700 for a Google Pixel or £800 for the latest Samsung smartphone – let alone the cost of the headset on top of that. Plus, it’s easier and cheaper to develop for – so it suits content creators too.
The best side effect
When Google announced it was discontinuing the Daydream, they also reiterated their focus on AR, saying: “We're investing heavily in helpful AR experiences like Google Lens, AR walking navigation in Maps, and AR in Search that use the smartphone camera to bridge the digital and physical worlds.” And this, in a nutshell, is another benefit of mobile manufacturers moving away from VR. The majority of AR experiences are accessed through smartphones or tablets so it makes complete sense that, with the current surge in the AR market, the big mobile players are focusing on that instead. The good news is that the rivalry between Android and Apple will likely lead to rapid development in the capabilities of AR as the two behemoths slug it out in this arena instead.
Meanwhile, Oculus and HTC, plus a number of other less well known brands such as Pico Interactive, are well and truly owning the standalone VR market – which is how it should be. Mobile phone manufacturers should focus on doing what they do best: creating smartphones with a whole range of different uses and leave VR to those who specialise solely in this type of tech – who can give this very exciting technology the space it needs to thrive.