How Smartphones are Driving Virtual Reality

Top photo by Danylo Bobyk

For all of the talk about the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, I’ve often thought that the Samsung Gear has the most potential as a crossover Virtual Reality platform. It’s a cheaper, more accessible option, a portable way to view VR content that doesn’t require much set up or additional hardware. You don’t have to clear out space in your living room or worry about tripping over a cord attached to a powerful computer. As long as you’ve got a Samsung phone you’ve got access to VR.

I now realize that I was wrong about that, if only because VR is going mainstream (and spreading across multiple manufacturers) even faster than I expected. The convenience of smartphone VR is making the format more accessible than it’s ever been, driving the conversation in a way that could alter the public perception of Virtual Reality.

Photo by Danylo Bobyk
Photo by Danylo Bobyk

 

Or at least, that’s my takeaway after attending a recent wearable tech demo/fashion show at Dundas Square in Toronto, where I tried three third-party headsets – MergeVR, NoonVR, and HomidoVR – that are all designed to turn (almost) any smartphone into a portable Virtual Reality device. If the Samsung Gear was designed for accessibility, the third-party headsets remove the proprietary component to lower the barrier to entry even further. You simply choose an app or a video and drop your phone into the headset and you’re good to go. It’s VR plug and play, as easy to use for adults as a View Master is for children.

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That’s a bigger deal than you might think. The experiences available for the Merge or the Noon are not as impressive as those available for the HTC Vive. In the short term, however, VR proponents need to convince consumers that Virtual Reality is worth having. It’s a lot easier to persuade people to take a chance on a cheaper option, especially when many people already have the smartphone needed to make everything work.

I saw that sales pitch in action while waiting to try the Merge in Dundas Square, where most of the guests walked away impressed despite the impending rain that made for less than ideal demo conditions. If anything, the poor weather speaks to the strength of the demonstration. The setup is so fast and so immersive that smartphone VR is able to make a good first impression during a literal rainstorm, as in the case of one teenager who declared his intention to purchase a Merge immediately after finishing his demo.

I don’t know how reflective that is of the average teenage spending habits, but the $79 price tag is low enough that the Merge headset could be an impulse purchase for adults with discretionary income. A younger generation that has grown up around technology will be willing to try on these headsets when they stumble across them at a demo booth at Best Buy. Public displays like the recent show at Dundas Square help people realize that they’re already carrying a Virtual Reality platform with them in their pocket. That makes VR a practical concept rather than a theoretical one, which in turn encourages people to start shopping for a bargain.

noonvr

So how do the three headsets measure up?

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Of the three, I’d give a slight edge to Noon VR ($99), which offers an app alongside the headset. The app is a collection VR gaming and video content. While it’s open you can double tap the back of your phone to return to the app’s menu screen, allowing you to navigate the app without having to remove the headset to check your phone. It’s a simple interface that dramatically increases the level of immersion, letting you filter through content in a quick and intuitive manner. (You can use the Noon to access VR content outside of the app, though you will have to take your phone off your face in order to make it happen.)

The Noon is also the best option for people with poor eyesight thanks to a built-in set of adjustable lenses. Lenses are a standard feature in all three headsets, but I’m extremely near-sighted (my prescription is -8.5 in each eye) and the Noon was the only one powerful enough to let me read the screen without blurriness, which is unusual for me. That’s probably the limit of the Noon’s focus, but as long as your eyes are better than mine (and that’s most of you), you shouldn’t have any trouble.

The Merge doesn’t have quite as many features as the Noon, but it’s a little cheaper and is decidedly more kid friendly. Made of soft purple foam, the Merge fits snuggly over a pair of glasses and is generally the most comfortable of the three headsets. The extra padding also provides excellent protection for your phone if someone happens to drop it. The Merge doesn’t have a partner app or any meaningful software component, but the light weight and overall comfort make it a strong alternative depending on your priorities.

Photo by Danylo Bobyk
Photo by Danylo Bobyk

 

The Homido headset, meanwhile, feels like the also-ran of the three. It’s a perfectly fine headset that does what you want it to do in the sense that it allows you to view VR content on your phone at a cost as low as $50. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to do anything that the competition isn’t doing better. The Merge is more comfortable and better with kids. The Noon has stronger software support and a better suite of hardware features.

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However, Homido does make a set of clip-on glasses that are to VR what polarized lenses are to 3D cinema. Running much cheaper than a headset ($15-$20), the glasses can attach to any phone and fold up for maximum portability. They’re not as immersive as a full set of goggles and you have to hold your phone in your hands, but they’re reasonable if you’re looking for a cheap, easy way to share VR content on the go.

Of course, those are quick impressions, so you’ll want to do your own research before making a decision. The point is that Virtual Reality is already a part of people’s everyday lives, and the content is more accessible and more sharable than ever before. That was on display at Dundas Square. Smartphones normalize the technology, and I look forward to seeing what creators come up with as the audience grows and more people come to accept VR as a regular part of the media landscape.

 

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