Oculus Go. Google Daydream. Names that will become synonymous with standalone VR hardware and the next generation of virtual reality hardware. By virtue of an early arrival to a fledgling market, relatively high brand recognition, and a surplus of resources and data with which to experiment, 2018’s most popular (and perhaps only) untethered VR HMDs will come from either Menlo Park or Mountain View. Imagining for a moment a VR utopia where adoption has finally crossed its most important threshold, what do these formidable machines mean for mobile-based VR?
Mobile VR, known all over in it’s many forms (from Mattel View-Master to Google Daydream) encompasses a hardware set that is vast and varied in function, form, and price. Yet even amidst all this confusion, clear winners have emerged in the market: Samsung’s Gear VR has proven an accessible and desirable VR solution for a number of reasons: Samsung mobile phones already enjoy a commanding market share of their own, and the company has proven its ability to move and ship units appropriate to demand. With over 5 million units sold at the beginning of 2017, and projections estimating double that number into 2018, the impact of mobile VR units in the popularization of VR is hard to overstate.
Using a smartphone as a VR device has many clear benefits: setup is relatively simple and painless compared to PC based VR, and it presents a lower degree of commitment than a high-end setup, which could cost up to twice as much and will only be used under very specific circumstances. Moreover, within an individual’s own hardware ecosystem, having a VR solution within a smartphone presents a less complicated and cluttered alternative to adding a discrete device to one’s environment.
However, standalone headsets have the potential to drastically disrupt this market, addressing many considerations that have kept the entire VR industry from reaching bullish adoption goals set by evangelists. In their current form, these standalone headsets can, in theory, deliver content that is equal or superior quality to their mobile-based counterparts and as displays, processors, and software continue to improve, unabated by having to cater to smartphone functions on top of VR functions, experiences could become even more engaging.
The Oculus Go in particular signals an important truth about the current state of VR that may be uncomfortable for mobile VR juggernauts like Samsung to hear: the cost of traditional mobile VR is now officially unjustifiable. This is not to say that mobile VR is no longer a cost effective feature in a smartphone. Rather, that early adopters who want to break into VR have no reason to go in on a new flagship phone and separate headset when a single untethered headset delivers a competitive experience at a significantly lower cost.
On top of all of this, using VR on a device on which many people are reliant for communication and other forms of entertainment becomes impractical once power comes into play. Battery life remains a serious bottleneck even on modern flagship smartphones, and in an era of ambient high definition displays and passive background processes this problem makes frequent mobile VR usage a basically untenable proposition.
The moment standalone VR hits the market, mobile VR will begin to decline as consumers demand a more practical and accessible VR solution. What remains to be seen is how much resources and effort are worth investing in mobile VR until then.