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Virtual Reality Aims for the Mobile Phone

A smartphone-based virtual reality headset from Samsung and Oculus VR could make the technology more accessible, but it also demonstrates a new set of challenges.
November 12, 2014

Max Cohen, head of mobile at Oculus VR, the virtual reality startup bought by Facebook this year for $2 billion, is unequivocal: the dominant way most consumers will experience virtual reality will be on mobile devices.

The Gear VR headset
The Gear VR headset, developed by Samsung and Oculus VR.

“PCs and dedicated machines will always have more power, but at some point, graphics become ‘good enough’ on a mobile device and none of that matters anymore,” Cohen says. “Will it be in two years’ time? Five years? Ten? I don’t know. But it will happen. You can’t surpass the beauty of being untethered.”

Gear VR, a forthcoming headset from Oculus VR and Samsung, is the first attempt at this “untethered” vision. It is the product of a fortuitous meeting, when Oculus VR approached the Korean electronics giant to have it create screens for the Rift, its yet-to-be-released device. Samsung had been working on a virtual reality headset into which you which you could slide a Galaxy Note mobile phone in order to experience portable VR. Now the two companies are collaborating on the resulting product, with Oculus VR providing expertise and software.

While work continues on the original Rift, the Gear VR is more than just a gimmick or sideshow for Oculus VR. Indeed, it’s a pet project for John Carmack, the video game designer who is driving the design and implementation of the company’s grand virtual reality vision.

Mobile seems a logical platform for the technology. When you find yourself fully immersed in a virtual realm, the illusion is compromised by the dim awareness that you remain attached to a PC via a cat’s cradle of wires. Mobile devices, theoretically, offer a more liberating experience. They’re not only self-contained but also cheaper to buy and run.

And yet there are significant technological hurdles to overcome before the Gear VR, or its successors, can become mass-market products.

“Heat is our primary issue,” says Cohen. “When you run a mobile phone’s CPUs and GPUs at maximum, the device heats up really quickly, and it needs to either cut the speed by throttling or shut down entirely.”

It’s a setback that Carmack and the rest of the Gear VR team are struggling to solve. “This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away in the near future, unfortunately,” says Cohen. “We’ll always have to manage heat; we won’t be able to fully solve it.”

The temperature of the device is just one technological difficulty. There’s also the fact that phone displays don’t refresh as frequently as other screens, which can make them appear to flicker and thus ruin the illusion, as Carmack acknowledged during his keynote address at the Oculus Connect event in Hollywood in September.

Then there’s the problem of positional tracking, needed to accurately transpose the user’s head movements into the virtual space. The sensors in a smartphone do not provide very accurate motion tracking (although the Gear VR is now rumored to use a relatively precise electromagnetic motion tracking system, called STEM, to overcome the problem).

And, of course, there are the ongoing challenges of battery life that vex all mobile phone developers, even those who make far lesser demands on their devices than those issued by a virtual reality application. For these reasons, the Gear VR is currently labeled “Innovator Edition,” a marketing twist, perhaps, on a more honest label: “prototype.”

“This stuff will work itself out in time,” says Cohen.

Despite the challenges, Cohen seems evangelical about the product. “It is incredibly cool,” he says. “It just still has some rough edges.”

It’s been a demanding 12 months for Oculus, a company founded in 2012 by inventor Palmer Luckey (see “Can Oculus Rift Turn Virtual Wonder into Commercial Reality?”).

In that time Oculus has had to adjust from being a small, self-contained company with a close-knit team of enthusiast engineers to working with two multinational corporations, Facebook and Samsung, with all of the challenges that come from a much larger, dispersed team.

Even when the hardware issues have been solved, the challenge of creating compelling software will remain.

Video games are likely to represent one major area of output. The video game development community has led the way with exploring VR’s current potential.

But film could play a major role in selling the technology to the public. One application that Oculus VR has developed, Oculus Cinema, is a virtual movie theater that lets you watch 2-D and 3-D films on the Gear VR. The company even hopes to make this a more social experience by letting people inhabit the same virtual spaces together, and adding physical representations of each person.

“When I travel for work, I talk to my wife and son over videoconference—but what if I could actually continue that emotional connection through a sense of presence and being with them?” says Cohen. “Social VR is something we’ve been thinking about for a long, long time, not just since we joined with Facebook.”

The resurgence of the technology—more than two decades after the initial virtual reality rush of the late 1980s—is being driven in part by the giddy excitement of enthusiasts. The shift to mobile VR may be happening before the true value of the technology has been established. There are many interesting games and applications in development, but nothing that demonstrates VR’s necessity, or why it should propagate to new platforms with such urgency. Gear VR’s challenge is to not only clear the technological hurdles but also demonstrate the broader usefulness of immersive virtual worlds.

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