Mobile VR: Worth it?



VR thrills depend on how well your smartphone chills.

The Samsung Gear and Google Daydream View are just two of the many mobile VR headsets out there that work with several smartphones to produce a decent VR experience. The phone needs a 4K display to avoid seeming as if you are viewing through a screen door, and a consistent drawback is that many phones get very hot, to the point where the headset fogs up or a warning pops up after 20 minutes or so of VR activity. However, viewing content with a VR headset can be as thrilling and immersive as a ride at Disney World.

Figure 1: The accelerometer’s role in the Oculus Rift head set. (Source: Oculus, U.S. Patent Office)

Figure 1: The accelerometer’s role in the Oculus Rift head set. (Source: Oculus, U.S. Patent Office)

Both the Google Daydream View and the Samsung Gear VR retail for $100 – $130, with older models costing less, but you get what you pay for, as there is no comparison to the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive. The ability to experience 360° using a late model smartphone and a fairly low-cost headset is mind-blowing at first, depending on the content you choose. Mobile VR, unsurprisingly, is not as rich in comparison to high-end PC-based and dedicated VR setups. Content for mobile headsets is also limited compared to that of high-end gaming VR platforms. A common complaint of consumers seems to be that there’s a 20- or 30-minute time limit for viewing before the smartphone overheats. Nevertheless, you can experience immersive sights from all over the world, including outer space.

What are consumers getting with a mobile VR headset? Many headset sensors communicate in near real-time with your smartphone and its sensors. The Gear VR has an accelerometer, gyrometer, and a proximity sensor for mount/unmount detection. Precise head tracking in concert with the content feed from the smartphone is an unexpected experience for first-time users. The quality of the images is highly dependent upon the quality of one’s smartphone in terms of the display and processing power. Any kind of lag may induce nausea.

However, you can play movies on a mobile VR headset without overheating the smartphone, and the experience is immersive, but you are viewing it two inches from your face. (In case you are wondering, most glasses will fit under the headset.) The Google cardboard is a dirt-cheap mobile VR headset that will work for users who want to try it out before investing in a higher-end headset. The made-for VR gaming computers and dedicated VR sets are far superior, however.

Price points seem to have the largest effect on the rate of adoption. Estimates of the 2016 worldwide market for VR headsets are 6.3 million; with 4.5 million Samsung Gear VR sets sold, and PlayStation VR sales close to one million. The Oculus Rift requires a VR-ready gaming PC and can be found for 4 – 10 times the cost of the Samsung Gear type of VR headset. One feature that lower-end mobile VR headsets do not have is positional tracking. Both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive use two to three sensors placed around the room to track the headset and controllers, which means that when you move, you are moving through the VR world you inhabit. In essence, mobile VR headsets are closer to low-cost personal viewing platforms than gaming platforms.

Mobile VR headsets priced at around $100 are best suited to personal viewing of content and perhaps immersive shopping or educational experiences. The latest out on the market is the Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus, which includes some form of positional tracking, yet still requires a smartphone. Some say that the Samsung Galaxy S8 or S8 Plus paired with the Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus does not overheat. Clearly, the experience with a mobile VR headset depends a great deal on the performance of your smartphone.


LynnetteReese_115Lynnette Reese is Editor-in-Chief, Embedded Intel Solutions and Embedded Systems Engineering, and has been working in various roles as an electrical engineer for over two decades. She is interested in open source software and hardware, the maker movement, and in increasing the number of women working in STEM so she has a greater chance of talking about something other than football at the water cooler.