Good Game: Is Virtual Reality Having Its Mobile Moment?

By Brian Crecente
Tribune News Service

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Tom Harding, director of VR and immersive products at Samsung says “Mobile phones aren’t only relevant; they’re critical to the growth of VR.” So apparently, all VR will not be created equal. Keep your eyes peeled for watered-down versions of reality headsets for mobile phones.

Tribune News Service

When it comes to emerging technology, convenience always seems to supplant just about everything else.

Apple’s original iPhone is the greatest example of that.

It’s not a very good phone, it’s not that great a camera, the games on it can be aggressively bad, creations that have more in common with a slot machine than Pac-Man, and yet here we are: Camera sales are down, seemingly everyone owns a smartphone, and game sales on the device are astronomical.

It’s not that people are technology masochists; it’s that unlike a camera or a gaming machine, you can slip the iPhone into your pocket and it does a perfectly fine job of replacing both of those things. Not a great job, just a passable one.

And now, it seems that virtual reality is beginning to have its mobile moment.

HTC and Oculus, creators of two of the most popular high-end, computer-powered virtual reality headsets, are also busy supporting the much less grandiose VR that can be delivered with mobile phones.

Samsung’s Gear VR, which is powered by Oculus software and runs on a Samsung phone, has been on the market and doing remarkably well for more than two years. Just last month, HTC, which co-developed the powerful Vive VR headset, announced it was rolling out a storefront for phone VR software in China.

And earlier this month, Google launched out a felt-covered, squishy VR headset called the Daydream View.

Why are the companies that have spent so much on creating high-end virtual reality headsets also working to bring a watered-down version of the medium to phones?

“Mobile phones aren’t only relevant; they’re critical to the growth of VR,” Tom Harding, director of VR and immersive products at Samsung, told me recently. “Gear VR has been critical to the growth of the awareness of VR and its appeal to the mainstream.”

Daydream’s product director, Mike Jazayeri, says that the vast majority of people who have experienced virtual reality have done so on a mobile device.

“We believe that will be the case for years to come,” he said. “Our goal is to bring quality VR to everyone. For us, the mobile phone is the way to do that.”

The idea, according to Rikard Steiber, who heads up HTC’s efforts in VR, is that by relying on the ubiquity of mobile phones, virtual reality will quickly gain a massive audience. That, in turn, will bring in more developers, which will attract a bigger audience, some of whom may upgrade to a pricier model of VR.

And on and on.

But what about that significant dip in quality found in mobile VR?

It turns out that for VR, as with just about everything else a smartphone can kind of do, being a master of convenience but mediocre on delivery is absolutely fine.

Just look at Google Cardboard.

The cardboard headsets can be made with a pizza box and a couple of lenses, but developers have created more than 1,000 apps for the device.

“Given that nearly 10 million Google Cardboards have shipped,” Jazayeri said, “I think it has been good for VR.”

(Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry. Brian Crecente is a founding executive editor of Polygon.)

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