VR Needs Mobile to Succeed

If VR is the future of gaming, mobile will have to play a role.

Samsung Gear VR Users
Chesnot / Contributor / Getty Images

Anyone who tries out one of the myriad methods of VR knows that it has massive potential for the future. It can manage to do things that two-dimensional displays have failed to properly convey. But there's just one problem, according to Stephen Totilo of gaming website Kotaku: nobody cares about virtual reality. Namely, that Kotaku's VR stories at least, have minimal reader interest. This should be concerning for VR's future if the all-important hype stage wasn't clicking.

It would be disappointing for something so powerful to be just a stalwart of Internet hype. But perhaps there's a reason for this.

Scaled Down

A developer at game studio Rebellion says that they have to scale their VR games down to about a 7/10 on the sensory scale because virtual reality itself pumps those experiences up to 11/10. Think of the way that some bands on a recording aren't that great, but when they play live, their music takes on a new quality when you're present. The natural converse is that some bands that are great on record can't replicate the live magic. It's the same with virtual reality. Something that seems mundane through traditional means may be amazing to experience for oneself.

The problem is getting people to understand that the gap exists and to adjust their perceptions. The best way is to get them to experience virtual reality for themselves. Perhaps traveling demos for consumers would be a solution – HTC has done this with the Vive in particular in 2015 – but that would still involve drawing people out to them.

Remember that consumer perception of 3D media is perhaps at a low after 3D TVs fell flat, and even ESPN couldn't get 3D TV programming off the ground. 3D still exists in cinemas, but there's no real excitement for a movie to release in 3D. But VR and 3D are two different phenomena, and that gap is best crossed by experiencing it.

On The Go

Here's where mobile comes in. Not even I, a die-hard fan of mobile gaming, would admit that Google Cardboard is better than Vive or Oculus. It has massive shortcomings, not the least of which being that the only way to interact with content on the screen is to use a flimsy cardboard trigger. But it's more than fine for basic VR applications. Google's virtual city exploration demo in the main Cardboard app is powerful enough to overcome its shortcomings. It puts you in the city that you want to explore, getting past the inferior aspects of Cardboard. 3D games give you that feeling of depth and presence, even if your interaction with them is limited, and you have to hold the cardboard viewer with your phone up to your head. It gets the point of VR across.

Use The Headset

And here's the thing: makeshift VR headsets are how people are going to interact with VR for the early days. There are over 5 million Cardboard headsets, and Google's seen enough interest to push the API further to include 3D spatial sound and to possibly develop higher-quality headsets.  And do not forget that Samsung is the top dog among Android high-end phones, and they have their Gear VR. It's a legitimate Oculus VR headset, and a lot of people are going to have one with the Galaxy S7 preorder program.

People have been celebrating the official launch of Oculus as some kind of milestone when the real milestone was Gear VR.

And it's quite clear that developers need to be targeting them in some way. Right now, whenever I talk to developers, they remain platform-agnostic. For example, I played Final Approach at PAX South, and the developers had an open mind to the game releasing on whatever VR platform made sense. They demoed the game on Oculus and Vive, after all. The game definitely works best with 3D controllers, but there's no reason why a similar controller couldn't work with a mobile VR device.

That's the attitude that everyone should have toward mobile VR: it's not as mature since most of the R&D has gone into platforms like Oculus and Vive, but it can't be forgotten.

Mobile VR

Mobile has to play a role in the mainstream adoption of VR. It could be as simple as mobile VR serving as a way to provide casual entry level experiences. But it could also serve as a way for games that show off what the big VR games can do. Even just providing an easy way to show off trailers for other VR games could go a long way toward the adoption of virtual reality. YouTube introducing 3D video will be a key milestone in the history of VR.

For critics who discount and ignore mobile VR, they need to be realistic about the 3 mainstream VR platforms and their chances at success. Oculus requires a powerful computer and expensive headset. Vive requires a specific room setup with its sensors (though an outdoor tent demo at IndieCade 2015 worked surprisingly well) along with the pricey hardware. PlayStation VR is the cheapest solution, but at $400 for the headset and $500 for the bundle including the required camera, it's not exactly a super-cheap way to get in. And history is full of unsuccessful system add-ons, and it's not exactly like PlayStation VR is so cheap that it's a must-buy. PlayStation VR could be the next 32X. It's just more affordable and accessible because the PlayStation 4 is the winning console this generation. While you may say that a Galaxy S7 with Gear VR might not be that cheap, remember that it's also a phone, not just a specific set of hardware. And that's the potential of mobile VR – the screens on modern phones are good enough to serve as VR headsets. Remember a Note 3 was the screen for a 2014 Oculus developer kit.  People are going to be more likely to dive into VR if they only have to pay a small amount of money for an accessory that works on hardware they have anyway, rather than on a console or desktop that they might not have. 

The Future of Gaming

Even consider that computers and consoles don't have the brightest long-term future. Apple in its March 2016 keynote remarked about how millions of computers in use are over 5 years old. The mass market consumer is not upgrading their computer. Even off-the-shelf hardware does a good enough job at the basics that people don't need to upgrade them. Even many indie PC games are playable! There is a healthy market for PC gamers who buy top of the line hardware, but as we've established, the people who care about VR are still not that high. And console sales are declining from the past while the gaming industry grows, driven by mobile platforms. Maybe virtual reality needs a few years to get its hooks into consumers. But by then, will the platforms VR is currently trying to take hold in be relevant anymore?

And yet, it feels like developers making VR games right now is ignoring mobile VR on purpose. Part of this is because Apple not having a realistic VR solution at the moment is a worrying factor. Like it or not, they're still the thought leader in mobile gaming. But there's still a lot of Android devices out there, Cardboard works with iOS, and Apple has enough money to swoop up a VR startup out of nowhere. As well, developers might have a fear of mobile gaming because it's so hard to sell premium games on the platform right now. But perhaps VR is part of what will drive premium experiences and people who are more accustomed to paying up front for games to mobile. That, or someone makes free-to-play work in virtual reality. One concern there, espoused by PikPok's Ryan Langley in an interview he did with me, is that features like customizations are harder to pull off in VR when many games are in first-person. Also, players interfacing with VR is still an open question, versus the ease of buying in-app purchases on mobile, especially with fingerprint authentication.

The content needs to be there, and right now, for whatever reason, developers are foolishly ignoring mobile VR's potential when so many people already have mobile VR solutions, even basic ones. Interestingly, the Cardboard version of free-falling game AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA has sold 10,000-50,000 copies at $1.99 each. Not a massive return yet, but considering how Cardboard is in its nascent days, it's a sign of the potential for a so-called light VR platform.

Not Quite Time Yet

It's not impossible to think that mobile VR's potential withers on the vine because there's no content for it because too many resources and effort were put into dying platforms where consumers showed no interest. And it is quite possible that VR is a niche platform. The public largely rejected 3D TVs. Motion sickness is an issue, and it could be that women don't like VR since women process 3D imagery in different ways than men. Women represent a significant portion of the gaming landscape, as platforms that have appealed to them are doing quite well. Even the past failures of the Virtual Boy, and the whole idea of people looking ridiculous in VR headsets could be a problem. Maybe people are quite happy with their 2D displays. VR could just be another footnote.

So, this is not a treatise that developers should abandon Oculus, PlayStation VR, and Vive right away. But it sure seems like wishful thinking to target these platforms while ignoring that mobile VR has just as much potential – and could be the thing that makes VR the cultural phenomenon it could be.