The man-child boomer got the best of me, and I fell victim to the hype, going into one of my obsessive spells to try to learn everything possible about mobile virtual reality (VR) for iPhones.
Despite 239 million iPhones sold, I knew that Apple, for whatever reason, wasn’t driving this craze. But I also knew I wasn’t going to get buying authority from my live-in CFO to purchase a hot new Android device with killer screen resolution.
I did have some air cover in that ad agencies and healthcare IT clients have been asking about our ability to produce VR content. Much of this stems from the fact that mobile VR is on track to reach $861 million in revenues this year, according to data firm SuperData Research. (Keep in mind that’s just the mobile piece of what’s estimated to be a $120 billion overall virtual reality market in the next three years!) So I knew I could put together my phone VR package for “research and development.”
While I’ve experienced the higher-end VR technology at conventions and in shopping malls, I never really tested it on a mobile device. Unlike with a $1,000 Oculus Rift package, which can be tested in Microsoft stores, mobile-phone based VR products have few test-drive options.
Essentially, a starter mobile VR package requires 5 key elements.
- A special VR headset or goggles
- A mobile phone (in this case an iPhone)
- VR apps that provide the “content” or entertainment
- An optional Bluetooth controller
- Earphones if not built into the headset
While VR is clearly driven by technology, the paradox is that the headsets are incredibly low or no tech. Google drove the initial wave of VR for the masses with its Google Cardboard product. The Cardboard is nothing more than a gift box with holes in the front to accommodate two simple lenses.
My first realization was how difficult it is to try the headsets with the mobile phone you will be using. As of this writing, Apple has not added third-party headsets to its product lines, so testing with an iPhone in an Apple Store is impossible. Some of the major electronics retailers have VR headsets displayed and chained to the rack, but again getting a demo with an iPhone was impossible in the Boston area where I live.
So after hours of obsessive research, and in lieu of a test drive, I ordered my first of what would be three headsetst. There were a few key elements I considered in my three-tries buying decision:
- Is it approved to work with an iPhone with any guarantee of resolution?
- Can the headset fit over prescription glasses?
- How easy is it to insert and remove your mobile phone?
- Are there controls that permit interaction with the iPhone screen?
- Are there head straps or do you need to hold them?
- Can you adjust the lenses to align with your pupils and field of view?
- Is the earphone and power port on the phone easily accessible?
- Is there venting to prevent the lenses from steaming?
Among these are a few critical factors to consider:
One is related to whether you need to wear eyeglasses to fully appreciate the VR visuals. Many manufacturers who don’t provide room for eyeglasses say that the lenses are adjustable for near sightedness, far sightedness and pupil distance. For my eyeglass prescription, I didn’t find these features especially helpful.
So it was critical that I find a headset that permitted me to wear small frame prescription glasses. The field for eyeglass-friendly goggles is limited, but I found that Merge provided the room I needed.
The other key factor is being able to control your iPhone while wearing the headset. Google Cardboard compatible controls tends to be the standard, but you will be at the mercy of how the application responds to those control buttons at the top of the headset.
As I mentioned earlier these headsets are simply a cardboard or soft plastic mask with lenses and push buttons. There is NO embedded technology involved as with Oculus. So essentially the buttons do what your finger should be doing when pressing the screen.
There are some Bluetooth controllers made to do this, but reports are that they won’t work with anything above iPhone OSX 8. So be prepared to be taking your phone out of the headset constantly to reboot or move from an accidental screen shift.
The last factor to consider is the availability of iPhone VR content. Fortunately, many of the headsets are Cardboard compatible, so the availability of VR apps is pretty good. That being said the apps are far from robust in their resolution, and the motion experiences can vary widely.
The first go-to app tends to be one of the dozens of rollercoaster simulators. While the crispness is not that great on most, I can see why they recommend you sit down when going on the ride.
Many of the other apps were more 360-degree or 3D as opposed to a true VR experience. I’ve just begun the search for some kind of impressive mobile business-to-business VR play, but I’ve not seen anything I’d recommend yet.
Stay tuned for updates in the weeks ahead.