Smartphone Virtual Reality: What it Can (and Can’t) Do Right Now
If you keep up with tech news, you’ve probably heard that we’re on the cusp of a virtual reality revolution. The list of big companies getting in on the VR action is practically a “who’s who” of the tech world, ranging from Facebook and Google to Sony and Valve. The only problem? Dedicated headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive won’t be available for consumers until 2016, and will require a powerful computer to work once they start shipping.
Thankfully, a simple solution is available right now for anyone who’s curious about the VR experience. It’s smartphone VR, and all you need to use it is the phone you already have and one of the many headsets already on the market. Then you just download a few compatible apps, and you’re good to go.
To get an idea of how this low-cost version of VR is shaping up so far, I used the Immerse Virtual Reality Headset from a company called thumbsUp to test a handful of apps.
Like all smartphone VR solutions, the Immerse VR Headset is basically a head-mounted box that blacks out your view of everything except the screen of your phone, which it suspends a couple of inches from your eyes. It also has a built-in divider that allows apps to send slightly different images to each eye, creating a 3D effect. Outside of the headset, the apps look like this:
The idea is that these VR apps can use your phone and its sensors to detect your head movements and make it seem like you’re in virtual world. Depending on the app, the results can be quite convincing.
I had some issues with this particular headset. Even when I pulled the straps as loose as they would go, it still felt uncomfortably snug on my face. There’s no room for glasses, so look elsewhere if you need them to see images close-up. There’s also no way to tap the screen without opening the front of the device, which is a problem with no great solution, unless you put a hole in the viewing box.
And while it’s advertised as working with phones up to 5.7 inches, my 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus just barely fit between the spring-loaded plastic clamps used to secure the phone in place. It did, however, work just fine when I tried it with smaller smartphones.
The headset I used isn’t the only one on the market, so your milage will vary depending on which one you buy. You can get similar plastic headsets from a number of companies, or you can go a more inexpensive route and get a cardboard one that you have to hold up to your face. You can even make your own if you’re in a DIY mood.
As for the actual VR experience, it has its pros and cons. On the plus side, when it works, it works. Many of the apps really immerse you in the worlds they create. One called Roller Coaster VR is very basic — it puts you in the front seat of a roller coaster and rolls around the track — but the effect is terrific. Same with DinoTrek VR, a short CGI film that effectively places the camera on a dolly as dinosaurs fly and chase each other through a colorful prehistoric world. Vrse is a curated collection of excellent videos that do a similar thing, usually using 360-degree cameras.
I was also surprised by how well the iPhone’s sensors detected the movement of my head. I always felt like I could look wherever I wanted in the virtual reality, and the apps would respond accordingly.
That said, some obvious issues reared their heads when apps tried to do more than just let you look around during a video.
There’s no standard controller for smartphone VR apps, and these things are in desperate need of a controller of some kind. Since your phone is locked in a box, you can’t exactly touch the screen as you would when using a normal app.
Some apps have ways of circumventing this issue. Some use standard smartphone-compatible Bluetooth controllers. Others place a cursor in the center of the screen that let you select items by looking at them and hovering for a few seconds. These are inadequate solutions to a problem that’s not likely to be solved anytime soon: Smartphone VR apps need a unified controller.
Beyond that, some issues are unavoidable with any VR headset. I often found myself dizzy when removing the headset after spending just a few minutes in a virtual world. If I had been spinning in my desk chair to play a game, I’d often come remove the headset to find myself facing a different direction than I thought I would be facing. I’d lose touch with my real-life surroundings, and almost knocked my water over onto my laptop one time. Pro tip: remove breakable objects from the vicinity when using VR.
It can get hot in there, too. Under the headset, your face emits heat that has nowhere to go. While using some of the apps, the lenses inside the headset actually fogged up until I pulled the headset away from my face.
But overall, I have to say I’m impressed. VR is still very much an up-and-coming technology, so it’s going to be a while before developers discover the best practices for designing virtual experiences. As the technology matures we’ll see more and more interesting results, but for now they’re still figuring out the basics.
Still, it’s an exciting technology, and smartphone VR is an inexpensive way to dip your toe in it. Even most of the VR apps on iOS are free. If you have some extra cash and you want to see what’s going on in the VR smartphone space, have at it. I doubt it’ll blow you away, but there’s enough interesting stuff happening right now that it’s worth a look.