One of the hottest new trends for 2016 is virtual reality (VR), which has returned to the development table after several years on the shelf. First championed back in the 1980s and 1990s for military training and simulator experiences, the gaming and electronics worlds have always been keen to get VR up and running for themselves. In 2015, we got to see the potential of gaming headsets such as the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR (formerly Project Morpheus). Now, it looks like the key area VR could really take off is with our mobile phones. Internet-connected handheld devices have already done so much to transform the way we live – what can VR add to mobile technology?
Just what is virtual reality?
VR is designed to give the user an immersive and three-dimensional experience. Using sight, sound, touch and more, VR technology places you in a fabricated situation while making you feel you really are there. It has been used very successfully for decades in flight simulators and other military training programs, but when it comes to making VR home-ready there have always been challenges.
Game and application designers have always known that virtual reality is the key to an exceptional user experience, but the technology itself has faced many challenges such as cost, size and performance. Until now, there has never been any VR product available that can be bought on the average consumer’s budget and used while at home or on the move. Over the past year, everything has changed. Leading mobile developers, media networks and game studios are investing large amounts of money into VR and it looks like we could all be enjoying the benefits very soon.
How is mobile VR leading the way?
Video games that use virtual reality are still a little way off, even though the headsets have made it to market already. The game studios themselves now need to bring the technology into their designs, and ensure everything is properly tested and working. This process is sure to take some time. Gaming VR is still reliant on quite a serious investment – you will need a compatible high-speed console or computer, tracking equipment such as the Kinect or PS Move, and the space to ensure everything functions correctly. Mobile VR asks much less of the user. The headsets and accessories are relatively cheap, no extras are needed and although the quality may not quite match up to what a computer can offer, the effect is still pretty impressive.
Leading the way in mobile VR are two key products – Google Cardboard and Samsung GearVR. Google Cardboard is one of the most budget-friendly ways to experience mobile VR for the first time. It is available pre-made or can be folded by the user, and there are plenty of customisable options available. Google has even released guides to creating your own VR headset from items you are sure to have at home. Like the more high-tech GearVR device, Google Cardboard works by slotting a smartphone into the headset device and viewing through the lenses. Bringing the screen closer to you makes the experience much more immersive, and allows you to enjoy the 3D effects in full.
By downloading compatible apps to an Android or iOS device, you can experience driving and flight simulators, adventure games and puzzles, 360 degree panoramic views and more. You can also enjoy personal cinema viewing on the move, as mobile VR apps support MP4 playback functionality on most devices.
It looks like mobile VR could be about to sweep the rug from under gaming VR’s feet, and make it to market first. Although all the above devices are available for purchase now, mobile VR headsets and apps are much more budget-friendly and have full support available now, so there is more to do and see. For just a few pounds – or completely free if you make the headset yourself – you can enjoy home VR right now. As mobile developers get more chance to use the technology to its full, you can expect many of your favourite apps to start offering VR features in the future.