The Future of Virtual Reality is Probably in Your Pocket

It’s hard to believe that virtual reality headsets are finally here. After years of promises, of teases, of salivating for details, demos and videos, virtual reality is here. You can buy a headset right now, hook it up to your PC and enter a wholly different world. We’re here.

So why does it feel like virtual reality already came and went?

It’s surprisingly easy to explain why virtual reality has had such a flashbang launch: it is prohibitively expensive. Sure, there are countless other reasons you can point to, like early fragmentation in the market or a games library that mostly amounts to glorified tech demos. But more than anything, virtual reality isn’t taking off because the barrier to entry is incredibly high.

Let’s say you want to get started with virtual reality today. First and foremost, you need to choose which headset to buy between the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. You need to weigh the pros and cons of each system: the Rift has exclusive games, the early hype, lots of big-name talent and the might of Facebook behind it; the Vive has motion controllers and spacial awareness that make for a more meaningful experience, things the Rift won’t have until later this year.

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Regardless of which one you pick, you’re going to need a very powerful PC to use it. Pop quiz: without looking it up, what graphics card is the minimum spec requirement for virtual reality? Let’s be real though, it doesn’t matter if you got it right; the very existence of the question points to a big pain point for consumers going forward. To run virtual reality today, you need to be at least fairly computer-savvy or know someone who is. You can buy an “Oculus-ready” PC bundle for anywhere from $1500 to $3150—depending on the quality. How do you pick? Most hardcore “PC master race” players would tell to opt out of all the bundles altogether and build your own PC for the best value, but that’s entering an entirely new world of confusion and often condescension.

Whatever PC and headset you end up going with, it’s going to cost you over a thousand dollars and your reward will be a handful of novelty games without much lasting value. Sure, there are a few gems here and there, but most virtual reality games at the moment feel more like proof-of-concept tech demos than full games worth your money. It’s hard to fault them given that virtual reality is essentially an entirely new art form unto itself, so there’s natural growing pains to be expected, but all the same, from a consumer perspective, we’re just not there yet.

Things might get better when the lower-priced and more easily understood PlayStation VR launches later this year with Sony’s backing, a friendlier entry point and additional months of maturity, but big publishers like Take-Two, Electronic Arts and Activision have already made it clear that they plan to wait and see whether virtual reality will take off before committing any real resources to it. That’s a bad cycle, right? Consumers won’t buy into virtual reality until games are available for it, and game publishers won’t make games for it until enough consumers have bought it. Something has to give.

So what’s the solution? Well, you could be reading this article on it right now. Yep, your phone. The writing’s been on the wall for years, folks. We might hem and haw at the “casuals” over there playing Candy Crush and Cut the Rope on their phones, but they spend more on gaming than we do and furthermore, mobile is where the next generation is playing their games, not PC or consoles. That split is only going to get bigger. Consoles and PCs will always have a market among dedicated players looking for a richer experience, but mobile is where the money is, and where the masses are. Virtual reality will follow.

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We’ve seen rudimentary virtual reality on mobile already. Anyone with a smartphone can spend a few bucks on a Google Cardboard headset and get up and running in minutes. No, it’s not the high-fidelity, balls-to-the-wall experience you’d get with a high-end headset, but for $15 or less, it’s an enticing proposition nonetheless, and it’s only going to get more so in the very near future. Google, further democratizing virtual reality, recently announced Daydream, a new virtual reality platform baked into Android itself. You won’t be limited to Samsung’s phones with its Oculus-backed Gear VR platform, either; it’ll work with all future Android phones that meet the minimum spec. Google will be putting out reference hardware for other manufacturers to follow in the form of a new headset to lodge your phone into. It certainly helps that using a phone means you get the advantage of using a lightweight and self-contained device that has zero wires to trip over like on the Rift and the Vive. Barring an announcement by Apple at its WWDC conference on June 13, Daydream is absolutely the best chance for virtual reality to take off.

You’re probably fighting with me in your head right now as countless obvious arguments flash through: “Mobile games are too shallow!” “There’s no motion controls!” “The perspective is narrower!” “It’s less immersive!” “The technology is inferior!” I’ve heard it all and none of it trumps the wildfire effect smartphones have had on the world. Look around you. If you’re out in public, you can probably spot a few people staring down at their phones, someone else making a call, another person endlessly scrolling through Instagram to pass the time, somebody else playing a round of Clash Royale or Clash of Clans or whatever the new hotness is at the moment. Everyone has a phone with them at all times, and people spend upwards of 4.7 hours a day on them.

Trying to sell someone an expensive PC and an expensive headset is a dicey proposition. Yes, it’s the high-end premium experience many consumers have been clamoring for, but when it comes down to it, it’s simply too expensive to get the market penetration it needs to stay profitable and worth a publisher’s time, which then makes it a harder sell to consumers. It’s a luxury item to the extreme—unlike a phone. In general terms, everyone needs a phone, everyone uses a phone, and everyone buys a phone. Telling people they can get a good enough approximation of the full virtual reality experience using the phone they carry around every second of the day if they simply pop it into a headset that costs less than a movie ticket is an easy sell, and it’s why mobile will be the dominant platform for virtual reality.