State of Casual VR: Is It Ready

Should I buy a VR headset for my smartphone?

[Image via Chicago Tribune, Taken at SXSW]

If you’re not sure what Virtual Reality (VR) is all about or what its current state is then it is only fair to let you know that VR headsets that are currently available are awesome. Best of all, VR is not what you remember it being in the 90's in arcades. VR is now more like the classic red Mattel View-Master. It is now something you look into and magically are able to experience a digital adventure, first hand. And in some cases you can get so perfectly lost that you will forget that you’re wearing a headset.

Currently VR headsets boil down into two form factors, assuming you don’t include anything that requires a powerful and pricey computer. These form factors both use your smartphone to power everything the phone’s screen as the view finder, with added lenses. One form factor, and what I consider to be the most common, is Google Cardboard. This form factor is so similar to the View-Master, that Mattel teamed up with Google to update its toy to a modern VR viewer. The second form factor is the Samsung Gear VR, which takes the Cardboard concept, straps it to your face and adds some very useful features. The Gear VR is powered by Oculus, some say the kick starter of the new VR revolution.

Google Cardboard

Like its name implies, Google Cardboard headsets are typically cut out of cardboard and folded in a way that allows for the addition of lenses and a button to emulate touching the screen. The cardboard form factor, no matter its building materials (sometimes plastic) require you to hold the viewer to your face for the duration of usage and offers no real padding or cushion where the cardboard meets your face. Its worth mentioning, some of Cardboard setups come with straps but do not offer an enjoyable experience either.

On the other hand, the Gear VR offers a plastic headset, lightly padded around the eyes, and offers straps that go around and above your head to hold it snug. It’s form factor does not feel cheap or expensive, there’s no sense that you feel like you can break it nor do you feel it’s indestructible. It's simply its own.

Unlike almost every other viewer on the market, the Gear VR has a USB phone dock that connects to the phone to power the headset and allows you to have greater control during usage. The viewer offers a directional pad (up, down, left, right) and a middle select button. What I found unique and awesome was that across the entire length of the direction pad, you could swipe in any direction to interact in a more natural way than pressing an arrow. This seemingly minor detail changes the entire experience. There is also a back button that does what you’d expect as well as the ability to long-press on the button offers an option menu that is actually super helpful. This menu includes a pass-through feature to see what the camera sees, therefore allowing you to find your way or have a drink without removing the headset. Overall it’s a very enjoyable experience. It’s worth noting the Gear VR only works with a small handful of Samsung smartphones while the Cardboard viewers and those that follow the same style typically support both Android and iOS smartphones at both the smaller and large sizes.

Samsung Gear VR

Full discretion, I was lucky enough to get a Gear VR and Samsung Galaxy S7 from Verizon to review. This is in no way a paid or commissioned article. I am thankful for their generosity and kindness.

In addition to the S7, my daily smartphone is the iPhone 6S Plus. It’s rather big, I also own an official Google Cardboard viewer. In my experiences, I first started by putting my 6S Plus into Cardboard and fumbled around to find apps. Once I found a few I liked, I realized that it was mostly about experiences. It was about seeing videos and pictures in a new light, the most basic of VR experiences felt so amazing. I can remember earlier this year, when I shared the setup with someone who was born in Italy, was a small boy without running water and today has an iPhone. His reaction was unreal, you felt the joy pour from him in a way I never saw before. It wasn’t that it was anything beyond amazing but it was the trick VR plays on your mind that let’s you be free to a new experience. It was the ability to visit Paris and the Eiffel Tower without spending time. While I really enjoyed the awesome iOS VR apps with Cardboard, the Android experience, with obvious reason, was much better on Cardboard. While both platforms offer the Cardboard app itself, the app acts as a mini App Store or maybe better described as more of a guide. The number of VR apps on iOS is just super low. I’m sure it’s the lack of Apple hardware that plays a major role in the low number of VR apps. Even though on Android there are more apps and games, holding an increasingly heavy device to your face just gets boring. And having only one button? Well that just sucks. It’s clear that most that get Cardboard only use it so-so.

Samsung had a great idea and enriched it with the Oculus platform to make it an even better experience. Now I don’t know how or why Samsung and Oculus struck a deal, I never looked, but it was a great move for everyone. Once you realize you can do a lot more with the Gear VR from usability perspective, you really realize it’s a different beast. It’s certainly no Oculus Rift or a HTC Vive (both powerful computer driven headsets), but it does a couple things and it does them very very well. I’m sad to return this device to Verizon. While I don’t have a gamepad, you can use a controller with the Gear VR. As you can imagine, having a controller helps with keeping your arms from getting overly tired. It’s highly recommended to get one since they are cheap. Strapping this phone to my face was like entering a different world. It might of only been for 30 seconds but after looking around and watching a simple 2D video clip, I realized I was inside of a movie theatre and in those seconds I felt like I was there — I knew nothing else. My mind flashed back to my childhood, the smell of popcorn, the bright exit signs and emergency doors. I snapped back and realized what just happened. It left me feeling joyful and free.

Beyond your ability to watch and view things, you have a horribly organized App Store with about 9 pages of apps. Once I read through each of the pages, clicking in and out of the app, I realized I could of just done this out of VR and it would have maybe been easier. Oh well.

There’s a few environments I did enjoy though, unexpectedly, the home screen design puts you in a strange and beautiful apartment that has floating floors and is well laid out with almost hidden oculus logos. Almost every app that gave you a default screen as a menu offered a beautiful room for you to do it in. There are apps for looking at 2D websites, others for viewing all types of media, more for viewing movies and fun games. Hidden in plain sight in the majority of apps are these small details that add very subtle pleasure to your experience. Talking about such details might seem odd but in a visually rich experience, the more elegance you can share, the more retention and virtual aspects you will create.

Games, so many of these apps are games. This, of course, is with good reason. The best games I found were ones that offered a sitting or cockpit like experience. The reason being simply, if I can’t emulate walking with this device than it is better to not try. It allows you to get lost in a way that is balanced between VR and life. I played Temple Run for a few minutes before getting my first VR sickness experience. Nothing terrible, certainly not enjoyable. I decided to play it a couple more times, just to see, and that proved that sitting is a much better method of playing. There is also no doubt that a gamepad would have also helped. I sat in a BMW i8 and experienced a video about switching bodies. I got locked in a room then meditated on the beach. Watching Hulu in a sleek modern house, on the beach or at a movie theatre is way more relaxing than you’d ever guess. The distraction free, video focused environments allowed for a more enjoyable viewing experience.

Everything is just fun and games until the S7 and Gear VR warn you that it is overheating and everything crashes on you. It’s happened each time I played with the devices in my two week span and assume it had something to do with my continuous need to switch apps and find more experiences. I always just seemed to finally find what I wanted to do when it would crash. It was a new phone and Gear VR so I’m not sure what’s up with that—Samsung.

[Image via RoadToVR]

So that’s it, Casual VR as you would of guessed just isn’t there yet. And even though there’s enough flaws to fill up more articles, these things are worth buying with the correct expectation.

  • If you have a newer Samsung Galaxy […] phone and you’ll use this thing at least once a month, than what’s the $100 to spend to experience something you’ll truly enjoy and show off to all your friends.
  • If you have an Android phone and you’re not sure what to get, from my research there are a couple plastic made viewers with head straps that actually will work nicely. They even come with Bluetooth that offer a better interaction while using the device. iOS users, beware of the Bluetooth add-ons — they do not work in almost every case, it’s not worth it. Move on.
  • If you have an Android or iOS phone, well your choices of plastic headsets are seemingly basic headsets, though I highly highly recommend going with the official Google Cardboard viewer from the Play Store. They have maybe 3 different styles currently and they go for about $15 at the cheapest. (yes, it’s only cardboard — yes it’s worth it.)
  • And if all else fails and you really just don’t know what to do but you’re super curious, get the Cardboard. Think about it, if you’re willing to spend $15 on barely two movie tickets, then you’re probably going to be happy with the Cardboard viewer, especially if you like to show off to friends. The worse case scenario, you spent $15 to try something that will be from the future, mostly.

At the end of the day, both VR headsets really offered up their own awesome experiences. Each time these experience were ones I really wanted to share with everyone that came over. It’s not that it was the perfect experience, it was that it was one that was like no other. The ability to see how far this technology could take you and leaves you dreaming of a digital frontier (pun pun), one beyond boxy websites and videos.

Circa ‘93

TL;DR: You’ll want to experience the Rift and Vive over everything else but that’s not casual VR. From there you want to try the Gear VR — it’s actually really nice and enjoyable to use, I know I was surprised too. It’s also worth it if you got the money to spend. Lastly there’s Google Cardboard setups — buy the official Google one from the Play Store for $15 and be happy you’re enjoying what it’s like to actually experience VR transportation.