2016 has already started off as an exciting year for smartphone-based VR. Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR have been around for a while now and are starting to get large marketing pushes from their creators. I still think we’re in the early stages of this technology and wanted to discuss where I think mobile VR is headed.

Amitt headshot1Guest article by Amitt Mahajan

Amitt Mahajan is a founder and managing partner of Presence Capital, a virtual reality and augmented reality-focused venture fund based in the San Francisco. Previously, he was the CEO and co-founder of Toro (acquired by Google in 2015) and the CTO and co-founder of MyMiniLife (acquired by Zynga in 2009). While at Zynga, Amitt co-created and launched the game FarmVille and served as the CTO of Zynga Japan. Prior to his entrepreneurial work, he was a software engineer at Epic Games on the Unreal Engine, one of the main 3D platforms used for developing VR content.

1. Mobile VR Will Be the Most Widely Used Form of VR

Mobile VR holds a lot of potential because of its easy-of-use, low-cost, and portability. I firmly believe it’s going to be the dominant form of VR in terms of reach and engagement. It’s also likely to be the first VR experience for most people and the first thing that comes to mind when people think of VR.

Since most users already carry a powerful-enough phone around with them, they will just require a low-cost hardware that the phone plugs into to use the VR software functionality their phone already provides. The Google Cardboard is effectively free (with limitations) and the Gear VR is reasonably priced at $99, making both options an impulsive decision for consumers that already own a compatible phone ($500 normally). This is significantly cheaper than the Oculus Rift ($599) and HTC Vive ($799) and also does not have the added cost of a powerful PC ($1,000-$1,500). The Sony Playstation VR will likely be cheaper than the above options and requires a cheaper Playstation 4 ($350). Even with the lower-cost, mobile VR is still cheaper than any of the higher-end experiences.

The Hidden Design Behind the Ingenious Room-Scale Gameplay in 'Eye of the Temple'

The main delayer of adoption right now is the availability of hardware supported (e.g. Gear VR, not Google Cardboard) VR headsets for phones. The catalyst here will be a GearVR-like device for iPhones. Apple hasn’t entered this market yet but has already indicated that they are looking at the space.

Photo courtesy Marla Aufmuth / TED
1,200 TED attendees try on Google Cardboard | Photo courtesy Marla Aufmuth / TED

2. The First Killer Use-case for Mobile VR Will Be on Planes and in Airports

Airline passengers already try to isolate themselves on flights and in the airport. Laptops, DVD players, and tablets are commonly seen in these contexts. Mobile VR offers an improved experience for passengers:

  • A (virtual) screen that’s much larger than a tablet or seat back display and not as bulky as a laptop or large tablet. Users can be virtually sitting in their living room or a movie theater watching shows
  • Isolation from other passengers. VR’s normally anti-social isolation works in the user’s favor in this context
  • Uses your phone, so can connect to in-flight wifi for flights with bring-your-own-device technology (such as most United flights)

3. Major Mobile App Developers Will Build a VR-mode into Their Existing Mobile Apps Rather than Deploy a New VR-only App

Within a few years there will be multiple types and brands of mobile VR headsets. Given this, rather than create brand new apps for new stores, I predict most app developers will opt to instead include a VR mode within their existing mobile apps that are triggered once the phone has been inserted into a HMD. An example would be Hulu or Netflix entering VR Theater mode once the phone has been inserted into a VR headset like the Gear VR. This has several advantages:

  • You can update your existing users to be VR-ready without getting them to download a new app
  • Your existing push notification channels and permissions will persist
  • It’s a better user experience for the end user because they only have a single app to open
  • You maintain your chart ranking and search ranking in the App Store listings
The Hidden Design Behind the Ingenious Room-Scale Gameplay in 'Eye of the Temple'
See Also: First Look at Virtual Reality ‘Netflix’ in Motion on the Samsung Gear VR

4. The Biggest Producers of Mobile VR Games Won’t Be the Biggest Mobile Game Companies

Similar to how the largest mobile companies were not the largest social gaming companies, there’s enough of a DNA change from mobile to VR in terms of design and execution that new, VR-focused companies will emerge and see greater success. Small teams with a focus on experimentation and exploiting early platform advantages will win here over AAA / higher-production content.

The largest mobile games (Words with Friends, Angry Birds, HayDay, Candy Crush, etc.) were all started by mobile-first companies that iterated and experimented before they had a hit. It took several years after the iPhone was released before platform-defining titles were launched: Words with Friend/Angry Birds both launched 2 years after the iPhone and Candy Crush/HayDay launched 5 years after.

Since VR has unique design challenges, there will likely be an equivalent experimentation period before a big winner in mobile VR gaming appears.

5. Positional and, Eventually, Hand Tracking Will Come to Mobile VR

Positional tracking is not much of a prediction because it is already confirmed to be in development by Oculus CTO John Carmack.

See Also: Oculus CTO Affirms Positional Tracking Priority for Gear VR

Positional tracking for mobile VR is important because it allows developers to create a whole new class of experiences based on head movement. It’s similar to how after the iPhone added GPS support, a whole new set of apps based on mapping were made possible.

By that measure, hand tracking is even more interesting. When users have the ability to interact with a virtual world via their hands, an endless number of new applications will be made possible. Apps like Tilt Brush or DJ’ing in VR expand the possibility of VR. This tracking is also how mobile VR, combined with a cellphone’s camera, can eventually dovetail into mobile-based AR. Google’s Project Tango is attempting to do this. Hand tracking is a much more intuitive way of interacting with VR and goes a long way to help create presence for the user.

The Hidden Design Behind the Ingenious Room-Scale Gameplay in 'Eye of the Temple'

Leap Motion and other gesture tracking hardware are fairly compact and could be integrated into a mobile VR headset to enable this tech. No company has announced this officially yet but all signs point to it happening eventually.

See Also: Leap Motion Gesture Tech to Ship in Hardware from “Major” OEMs This Year

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  • Peter

    I got the s6 especially for the gear VR. And although it was my first ever VR experience, and I was really impressed, the gear VR has been in my drawer now for a month.

    New games trickle in, but they are simply not very fun to play. Gunjack was really cool, but a shooter only entertains for so long.

    I have been active on it a lot the first two months I had it; and was mostly waiting for new 360 movies/experiences. But I kept falling back on the things I had already seen and thought to be nice. But chewing on the same gum becomes a tasteless experience.

    My hopes are now solely on Vive, to be honest.

    • Bob

      Do you think VR is just a craze like 3D TV’s or do you think it is a life changing form of technology?

      • Peter

        Its not a craze, too much “real” corporations pouring in money. But they do need to focus on getting content in instead of just putting a Gear on everybodies face. Maybe a series with a new episode every week done completely in 360 or something.

        • Paul Schuyler

          Peter I totally agree with your points. I also bought an S6 exclusively for the GearVR. At first it was awesome, very impressive. Over time, its value has faded, partly I think because of lack of content. For me, too it sits mostly unused. Deer Hunter was pretty cool with a gamepad. But for me the other games weren’t that compelling. There’s the wow, super cool factor with the Oculus Video app and 360 videos, and maybe this could be compelling over time for the reasons mentioned in the article (benefits of isolation). But in my view mobile phone VR has some real flaws. First the drain on the battery. Second the way you can’t really use your phone normally while its attached. And third and most important for me…the optical flaws. With the GearVR you have 3 glass surfaces to constantly clean; front side of lens, back side of lens, and phone surface. It’s not so easy to just plop it on there and go…at least for me. It’s more like prepping a DSLR, being meticulous and careful. Even with that it seems there’s always a smudge or hair in there which for me is visually distracting. A high fidelity visual experience is critical for me, especially if you’re going to sit there for hours with it on your head. Try to imagine a subtle blur across your theater experience. I think mobile VR must conquer these issues to get wider adoption. Still there’s lots of promise in so many areas…especially for practical professional applications.

          • Peter

            Ha I recognize the prepping sequence.
            – Before I start using it, I lay my Gear on the livingroom heat grill; eye side down to heat up the lenses to prevent fogging.

            – I then carefully peel my phone out of its casing, carefull to not break the corners of my casing cause I went for the Edge, which only has 4 tiny corners to hold on to my phone.

            – clean phone screen, clean lenses outside and inside.

            – Very gently I wiggle my phone onto the connector (that thing is going to break at some point I’m sure of it).

            – attach head phones

            -orchestrate the gear and headphones on my head, ready to rock!

            But to be honest; I think Samsung said something along the lines of “this is not a premium thing” or something.

            It is a first taste of something way cooler and better, and if you happen to have a galaxy phone you can have that taste.

            I was eager enough to buy an S6 for it instead of an Iphone, so I am the one to blame really..:)

  • yag

    “most users already carry a powerful-enough phone around with them”
    A $500 phone ? I think he doesn’t live on the same planet. Tho I agree with him about mobile VR in the short term.

    • Scott Nebeker

      I’m not sure which way you mean that comment. You’re either thinking a $500 phone is excessive or not, I can’t tell.

      Quick qualifier here, I live and breath Google and using Google certifications pays my bills. That said, my Nexus 5x at $399 on the Play Store and the Nexus 6p at $499 at the same retailer will handle this stuff with ease. In fact, my first-gen Nexus 5 handles my demos of this stuff better than most other devices I have tried.

      Samsung owns the Android marketplace in a big way but it doesn’t mean they’re good at everything outside the Samsung-verse.

  • Steve

    Yeah, watching movies in the gear vr on a plane was really nice. Made the trip so much better!