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VR vs. Smartphone HMDs

It’s astonishingly clever, really. A virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD) that does away with expensive PC hardware and utilises the smartphone, something that almost everyone has in their pocket, as a display, processor and head-tracker. Of course the experience isn’t comparable to what you’ll find on the Oculus Rift, but as a low-end introduction to the most exciting upcoming technology, it’s a brilliant solution requiring low cost and low horsepower.

It’s just a shame that the horse has already been killed and beaten. Over and over again.

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Last week no less than three smartphone-based VR HMDs were announced in Merge, Jobe VR and the Archos VR Glasses. Granted Merge has a unique feature in its dedicated motion controller but these three join the already overflowing list that includes the AlterGaze, AirVR, Sight VR, Homido, Visus, VREye Go, The Cortex, VR One, Durovis Dive, Cmoar Personal Headset Viewer, and VRTX. That’s 14 HMDs without even mentioning Google Cardboard and its own range of copycats or of course what is looking to be the most competent smartphone-based HMD, Samsung’s Gear VR.

The rapid saturation of this market has brought about unwelcome fatigue before many of these products have even launched. Many of these kits are hard to tell apart and lacking the kind of specifications that consumers need to have the confidence to place a pre-order on them. Even from a design viewpoint some look near-identical, and the promises that companies make about ‘the future of VR’ and how their product fits into that often leave much to be desired.

Some of these kits promise seemingly unique and innovative features such as playing PC titles in VR. Do a little digging on many of these features, however, and you’ll find that these are often achieved through unofficial, third-party means such as using streaming apps that have no connection to the company making the HMD. Worse yet, many also promise dedicated apps for locating VR content. With so many apps for so many different HMDs, how is a consumer to know which apps will be compatible with their specific device and what compatible videogames aren’t appearing on their chosen store front?

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Truthfully, it all resembles something of the same kind of gold rush that has been seen in the free-to-play market and other areas over the past few years. Some of these devices do deserve credit. Durovis, for example, has had the Dive on the market for much of 2014 and is already delivering on the promises that many companies are currently making with their pre-order programmes. Elsewhere, The Cortex is mixing VR with augmented reality (AR) for unique applications and Archos’ extremely reasonable £24.99 GBP/$29.99 USD price tag for its Archos VR Glasses makes many of the kits priced at $99 or above redundant.

Even Gear VR itself isn’t exempt from these criticisms. Thanks to a partnership with Oculus VR and the power of the Galaxy Note 4 smartphone with which it runs, Samsung’s kit is positioned to be the best offering in the smartphone-based HMD market, but enthusiasts will be paying the price. On top of the Gear VR itself, which is thought to be placed in the £150/$250 range, the Galaxy Note 4 as a standalone purchase costs in the region of £600. Suddenly this ‘low-cost’ solution is looking anything but, especially with the release of the Oculus Rift thought to be taking place in 2015. Will there be a big enough gap to justify spending almost £1000 to get early access to consumer VR?

Again, VR on a smartphone is an astonishingly clever idea. As handsets continue to improve no doubt the industry will one day reach a stage in which components found in these phones will also be used to build wireless HMDs with dedicated chipsets as already seen in the GameFace HMD. This over-saturation is no doubt a natural knock-on effect that will sort itself out within a year’s time. But until then consumers themselves need to be smart in deciding which kit to back.

‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.