Devices of Virtual Reality

The Devices of VR: Part 2 – Mobile VR Headsets

Joe Banes

Tech writer, VR Evangelist, Geek of all trades. I live in Arizona with my lovely wife and daughter. I am passionate about innovative technologies that will drive our future, both near and far. Virtual, augmented, and a mix of both realities will change our world in so many ways, touching so many aspects of our lives and I plan to be in on the action. Storyteller at heart and budding content developer, I've been around VR/AR for the last 5 years and in technology for well over 20 and I am, as Walt Disney put it, always moving forward.

We’re coming into the station. It’s been a fun ride so far I think. Wait, you getting off? VR is just too expensive for you right now, huh? I understand that, I really do. Though Oculus did announce that the price for a ticket to high-immersion VR was now going to start around $499 for a VR ready system. Still a bit much? I think I can still help you enjoy VR. Go ahead and sit back down. The rides not quite over with yet. We have some cheaper options for the more budget minded virtual traveler. Let’s take a look at 3 mobile devices that, while not offering the sheer power of high-immersion devices, offer quite a compelling virtual reality experience.

Part Two

Welcome to part two of our Devices of VR Series. In part one, which you can find here if you want to catch up, we took a look at the high end of the VR scale. We examined high-immersion or connected VR headsets such as the Oculus and HTC Vive. As you saw we can have some very amazing experiences with such powerful devices, but they come at a price. A high one and not one that everyone can pay at the moment.

That’s me, Joe. Am I just out of luck? You said you had some budget minded options. I want to hear about those. Something about mobile devices, right? Wow, you guys are just writing this thing for me. That’s exactly what I said, and yes, mobile VR is exactly what we’re going to discuss in this part of the series. VR that is cheaper, un-tethered and well…mobile. It’s a great entry point to VR and, unless you have a personal Sherpa to carry your big desktop system around, it’s a great way to share VR with your friends and coworkers.

Have VR Will Travel

Mobile VR requires a bit less explanation than high-immersion VR because the name describes what it is fairly precisely. VR in this category generally uses a smartphone in order to drive the virtual experiences. The phone fits inside the headset and the built in screen is used to display the content. No exterior wires or connections to any other devices (unless you want to plug in a pair of headphones to the 3.5mm jack, sorry iPhone 7 users, too soon?) are needed to make mobile VR work for you.

Don’t have a smartphone? Uh…you may want to get off at this station after all then. There just aren’t any options for the venerable old flip phone. If you still want to ride this train you could upgrade. Some manufacturers are even offering a VR headset with the purchase of certain phones.

Wait, I have to buy a smartphone? You said cheaper. You said it, I remember.  Yes, I said cheaper and even if you have to buy a smartphone I stand by that statement. Most carriers offer monthly payments on their phones. Yeah, you are paying for a smartphone capable of VR, but the upfront cost is still much lower than connected options.

Look Ma, No Cords.

Mobile VR offers some very clear benefits over its more expensive tethered cousins. It also offers some very clear disadvantages. First the good stuff. We mentioned above, but mobile VR has cut the cord. Since the phone fits in the headset there is no need to have a cord trailing behind you waiting to trip you and take your lunch money. Freedom! This is pretty much the biggest advantage next to lower cost.

Rounding out the benefits is the fact that you can easily take your mobile VR device wherever you want. Got a trip coming up and fearing the impending loss of virtual availability? Worry no more, take it with you. Mobile is extremely portable and the headsets are very light.

These advantages do have a limited shelf life. Portable VR ready laptops and high end wireless devices will give us some of these benefits too and soon. Mobile VR will stay our cheapest option for some time and portable laptops still have to deal with wires. As for high end wireless devices, they are still some ways off. No sooner than the end of next year most likely.

Then again, advances in mobile devices will continue and it may be that the high end devices of our future take the place of our cellphones. At the very least advances in inside out tracking will take away the biggest disadvantage of mobile VR.

Concept by HTC. Future VR device?

Inside, Outside, Shake It All About

Woah, woah, Joe. What’s with the gobbledygook? Inside out tracking? Huh? Oh, did I not explain that one? Sorry. I’ll take time out of this very long article so that I can explain to you what inside out tracking is. All the other readers will just wait patiently. We want you to be all caught up. Leave no virtual man or woman behind. Just kidding, I don’t mind explaining. I’m sure others don’t know what it is either, they just didn’t want to ask. As with anything technical VR comes with its fair share of, what was that you called it? Gobbledygook? Yeah.

Current VR headsets that allow for positional tracking, such as the devices we discussed in part one, do so using external sensors. The sensors track the headsets in your play space and feed that to the game or experience. This is called “outside in” tracking. Outside sensors tracking you in your play space. “Inside out” tracking is the exact opposite. Instead of external sensors, the headset itself has cameras or sensors built in that track out into our play space.

I’m sure some math whiz or science type will tell me. No, Joe, if we take X-Y*Z VAlpha45684… why are you snoring? Suffice it to say that the above description gets the point across but there are a ton of underlying complexities.

Three Disadvantages of Mobile VR

Positional Tracking

Okay, now that you know everything possible about VR tracking, let’s move on. Mobile VR comes with some disadvantages. The biggest one is that it offers no positional tracking. See, there was a reason I was talking about inside out and outside in tracking. You thought I just wanted to talk. Positional tracking allows us to feel more present in our experiences.

Let’s say you jump into a puzzle game that requires you to read a paper on a desk in front of you. With positional tracking you could just lean over and read it. If you try to lean forward in mobile VR, the desk will attempt to stay at a fixed distance from you. It will appear to push away from you. This can cause some nausea in some folks. At the least it’s a bit disorienting. Inside out tracking will fix this, but the ability to do this is still a ways off for smartphone enabled VR.

Battery Life

Another not insignificant issue with mobile VR lies in the device driving it. Even in normal day to day use a smartphone can have many of us running to a wall outlet like we had the gas station sushi. Batteries are just limited and VR experiences suck up the juice like no other app. I have no idea when we’ll see innovative new battery tech that will fix this particular issue. The good news is that we can generally enjoy at least a couple of hours of VR before we need a charge up. Most people need a break in that time frame anyway.


Cellphones don’t have the massive hard drives of a computer and so space is often at a premium. This is especially true when the manufacturer of the phone insists on installing a suite of applications they are just sure that we want. In fact, they are so sure you need them that you can’t delete them. It’s for your own good. So the storage on our phone starts at a deficit. Then you add the fact that the smartphone has become your personal jukebox, photo album, video library, email storage, and gaming device. Yeah, that storage starts to look a bit lean when you want to add a series of apps for VR that could take up 300-500MB each.

“The king of the mountain at the moment is the Samsung Gear VR.”

Well I can just use an SD card. That certainly helps when you are able to load the app to the SD card, but some seem to restrict you from doing this and force you to use system storage. 500MB adds up if you download a lot of experiences. Not to mention downloading 360 or 3D Videos to your phone in order to watch them in VR. This could take 1GB or more per movie. They are not small. This isn’t necessarily a serious issue; just something to be aware of.

Let’s Look At The Devices

Still with me? Great! I know it took a bit to get here, but I like to let you know what you are getting into. Now you know what mobile VR can and can’t do. Mobile VR may be a cheaper option, but even $90 bucks is a waste if the technology isn’t what you are looking for. Right? I mean if you must have positional tracking, no amount of wishing is going to make that happen in the mobile space at the moment. Might as well save your money for either a connected device or wait until the next gen mobile devices come on the market.

Samsung Gear VR

Okay, let’s take a look at three of the main devices driving the mobile VR sector. The king of the mountain at the moment is the Samsung Gear VR. Gear VR is the result of a marriage between Samsung for the hardware and Oculus for the software to drive it.  It was not the first mobile focused device to make it to market on this list, but it is currently the best and most robust. Though as you will read later, Google, is definitely planning on changing that statement.

Innovator Editions

Samsung Gear VR was introduced to the consumer market in 2014 as the Innovator Edition that worked with the Samsung Note 4 smartphone. It was quite well received by developers and consumers alike. A second Innovator Edition launched only 3 months later in order to support the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge.

It had a 2560×1440 screen resolution (the resolution of the phone’s display) and about a 90° horizontal field of view. You will remember that field of view, in this case, is the combined total of horizontal area you can view with both of your eyes. Oculus supported these devices by creating an early version of Oculus Home Store where users could download apps. This version of the Oculus Store eventually became the full consumer store for both the Gear VR and the Oculus Rift.

The first consumer edition of the Gear was put up for pre-order in November 2015. It was sold out the first day. Until very recently it was the only version available to consumers.

It supports the S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, Note 5, S7, and S7 Edge. The only differences between this version and the Innovator version, beyond the supported phones, is that it is a bit lighter and has about a 96° FOV. The screen resolution is the same.

The second consumer edition launched just this year in order to support the newest Samsung Note 7. It has a 100° FOV and a few ergonomic changes, including a color change from white to blue/black. Again, as the screen resolution relies on the phone display, this continues to be 2560×1440. The biggest change to this edition is the addition of USB type C which was required to support the Note 7. This edition will also support all of the previous phones supported by the first version with the use of an adapter that comes with it.

You can pick up the older consumer version for around $79 and the newer version for $99. That is if you don’t get a free version when you buy a new cellphone.

Private Party

The only real downside to the Samsung Gear VR is the fact that you must use a compatible Samsung phone with the device. No other phones will fit, even if they also use micro USB. Even some of Samsung’s own phones will not fit in the device. Only those listed above will work. Samsung has a pretty big market share, but this is a big complaint with consumers.

It is hoped that if Samsung continues in this market they will develop a device that is compatible with a wider array of non-Samsung phones. Nothing in the market indicates this is going to happen. Google is knocking on the door in a big way now though. So this could change. We will have to wait and see. There are some rumors that Samsung may wait to let the VR market mature more before they offer up another device. I have no special insight into this; though I would guess that Samsung may bring a Daydream compatible headset to market. More on Daydream in a moment.

Regardless, if you have a compatible Samsung phone or you are willing to buy one, the Gear VR is an excellent introduction to virtual reality and they just announced at Oculus Connect that the app store is going to have hundreds of new compatible experiences. They currently have the largest market of apps for VR of all the mobile headsets.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard was one of the first VR devices available for consumers. It was quite literally made out of cardboard and came in a kit that users could put together for themselves. The cardboard version of Cardboard was pretty uncomfortable and it has no strap so you have to hold it to your face. I am a great believer that you should show people the best possible form of VR that you can and so I was never a fan of Cardboard. It’s just not comfortable and the experience is lacking because the rigid cardboard construction does not fit your face very well.

Despite this, Cardboard devices can be found for free at conferences or in various online stores for around $15-30. It also works with a wide variety of phones (up to 6 inches, including the iPhone) and so it is the only choice for those without a compatible Samsung device. Just like a Gremlin though, keep it out of the water.  Cardboard is considered the very basic level of VR. You can find experiences and apps on the Google Play Store as you might expect. Though the pickings seem to be fairly slim.

So why am I including it? Because there have been no other options for VR in the mobile market besides Cardboard if you did not want to go the Samsung route. Also Google Cardboard is technically a viewer and a platform. Since it was introduced other manufacturers have created better Cardboard devices.

A Collection of Devices

Companies like Merge VR and Homido created plastic or foam headsets that are compatible with Google Cardboard. Even Google’s Cardboard store sells a variety of versions (though still mostly made of cardboard). These newer headsets make using Cardboard a much better and more comfortable experience. There is even a new View-Master device that is made to work with Cardboard. Oh childhood, you’ve come a-calling.

This means when using Google Cardboard, you can choose from a collection of devices. Doesn’t that mean mobile VR has more than three devices to consider? Technically, but, I’ve lumped the “type” together as it makes logical sense. Each Cardboard device may look different and have minor differences in features, but they accomplish pretty much the same thing. The Merge headset is my personal favorite for this platform. Great lenses and extremely comfortable.

One thing I will advise when looking at a Cardboard platform device is to make sure you pick a headset that allows you to adjust the lens distance. That is, pick a device that allows you to move the left and right closer together or further apart. This will allow you to adjust the crispness of the image so that it is not blurry. Or at least attempt to take out the blur.

Cardboard Becomes Daydream

Originally Cardboard was meant purely as an introduction to VR. The devices were easy to use and setup. You simply download the Cardboard app onto your phone. Start the app then insert the phone into your headset. Then enjoy. Still, Google Cardboard never got to the level of quality that the Gear VR did. However, it was a springboard for development into what is shaping up to be a much more robust ecosystem for VR by Google. Google Daydream.

Google Daydream View

The Google Daydream View was shown to consumers a few weeks ago. It stands as the flagship product of an initiative developed by Google VR called Daydream. We’ve known about Daydream for some time now. What we didn’t know, until now, was the hardware Google was developing to support its platform. Google Daydream View and the Pixel Android phone is that hardware. With support from companies such as, Samsung, HTC, LG, ZTE, Asus, Xiaomi, Unity, and Epic Games (Unreal Engine) Daydream is positioned to really broaden the mobile VR market.

Google Daydream View is an interesting VR headset. Made of cloth, much like the Oculus, it opens in the front to support various types of cellphones that are Daydream compatible. They chose to not go with the plastics of the Gear VR and the top head strap is missing as well. The headset isn’t available until next month but I am including it because it will stand as the logical competitor to Gear VR and evolutionary update to Cardboard.

Only A Pixel?

As part of the launch of Daydream View, Google is launching their new Android smartphone known as Pixel. Pixel was made from the ground up for VR and for the Daydream platform.

Even though Google is launching their own VR focused phone, the Daydream View will not be

limited to that phone. This is good considering the screen is lacking compared to other competitors. With only a 1080p screen it’ll be interesting to see how it stacks up against the phones sporting 1440p as their native resolution.

Google will also be launching 50 new apps with Daydream View and Pixel. With “hundreds more” on the way throughout the next year. This is good considering the light state for VR on the Google Play Store. I’m not sure if the Play Store will be used for Daydream apps, but I think that is safe to assume. I highly doubt they’d build a new store just for Daydream. They do seem to have built a new front end for the store as seen in the video below.


We said this series was a focus on the devices of VR. Mobile VR in this case. It could be argued that we are muddying the term “devices”. After all, Daydream and Cardboard are platforms that support multiple devices. Like Cardboard, Daydream will be a collection of devices from different manufacturers. Daydream View is just Google’s entry into this space and the first headset we know about for this platform. So yes, we are not strictly speaking only of hardware in this piece.

Still I think this breakdown makes the most sense for this space. It’s not as cut and dried as the high-immersion market when it comes to the actual devices, except for the Gear VR. Everything else in this space is really about the platform. Cardboard may get replaced by Daydream, but it’s not going away overnight so I think it bore discussing here. We’ve not gotten to try any of the Daydream devices yet, but I doubt they will vary much in capabilities. Like the Cardboard devices, they’ll have visual differences but function in the same way. Stay tuned at VR Today Magazine for future reviews of these devices.

The Future

So that has been a look at the devices or platforms of mobile VR. It’s not necessarily as sexy as high-immersion VR, but it does have an important place in the virtual ecosystem. Mobile VR and smartphone technology was the first step to having devices like the Oculus. Miniaturization that will continue in this market will help drive the technology of the bigger headsets.

There is a lot on the horizon for VR. New devices, new ways to run the devices, and peripherals that will change the way we interact with VR. Mixed reality will take the concept of high-immersion to all new levels. This is the focus of the third and final part of this series which we’ll have for you next week. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride so far. I also hope this series has helped you understand the technologies of virtual reality if you weren’t quite up to speed. Still have questions or some thoughts on the mobile VR space? Feel free to chat with us below. See you in the future.

Written by Joe Banes

Tech writer, VR Evangelist, Geek of all trades. I live in Arizona with my lovely wife and daughter. I am passionate about innovative technologies that will drive our future, both near and far. Virtual, augmented, and a mix of both realities will change our world in so many ways, touching so many aspects of our lives and I plan to be in on the action. Storyteller at heart and budding content developer, I've been around VR/AR for the last 5 years and in technology for well over 20 and I am, as Walt Disney put it, always moving forward.

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