In Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson's seminal book based on a future world driven by consumerism and warped by privatization, people seek escape through a game-like metaverse using a variety of virtual reality rigs. The sophistication and cost of the VR gear impacts the way a person appears in the virtual universe and how they perceive things.
Cohen’s view of Snow Crash as a predictor of VR things to come isn’t about the fictional world’s hyperinflation, cybernetic pitbulls or the growing social importance of massively multiplayer online games. It's about the broad variety of VR devices used in that fiction. He sees the future of VR as being not experiences delivered to a singular sort of device, but something more akin to television, where a wide variety of devices will all be able to access the same sorts of content.
And as with television, that diversity of devices will bring with it something we’re already starting to see: low-end virtual reality. While mobile phones can deliver a VR experience, it’s not even close in quality or immersion to what you’d find in high-end VR headsets powered by computers.
Despite that, the creators of today’s current VR gear — whether it’s made of cardboard or runs on a top-of-the-line computer — believe that VR’s success will ride almost entirely in these early days on the ubiquity and low cost of smartphones.
That’s because virtual reality needs scale to succeed, and according to VR experts with Google, Oculus, Samsung, Vive and others, the mobile phone is key to achieving that scale.
"Mobile phones aren’t only relevant; they’re critical to the growth of VR," said Tom Harding, director of VR and immersive products at Samsung, in a recent interview with Polygon. "Gear VR has been critical to the growth of the awareness of VR and its appeal to the mainstream.
"There’s no cable and, in many cases, no risk because it is bundled with the phone. Even at $99 it provides a really low-risk point of entry. So it remains absolutely vital to the growth of awareness of VR."
That’s why Samsung teamed up with Oculus for the Gear VR, why Google just released the Daydream View headset, and why Vive maker HTC recently announced its own plans for mobile VR.
"The vast majority of people who have experienced virtual reality have done so on a mobile device," said Mike Jazayeri, product director for Daydream. "We believe that will be the case for years to come.
"Our goal is to bring quality VR to everyone. For us, the mobile phone is the way to do that."
Sitting next to the Vive or Rift or PlayStation VR headsets, Google’s Daydream View looks like something designed for children: a boxy oddity wrapped in someone’s old sweatshirt.
The three current kings of high-end VR — Oculus, Sony and HTC — have created gear that lives up to the fantasy aesthetic of virtual reality rigs. Their futuristic shapes are bedazzled with lights and sensors. Arrays of straps and dials fasten them firmly to the face. Clusters of wires spill from their sides to slither away into expensive computers.
This is the future and it’s confusing and it’s expensive and you better not even look at it or you might break something, they seem to say to the uninitiated.
Then there is the Daydream View. It has a floppy elastic band that you slip over your head and a loop of bungee to hold a phone in place. It’s gray. It’s squishy. It’s very inviting.
Currently it only supports Google’s Pixel phones, but that is set to change in the near future. Once you drop the phone in place, latch the lid closed and slide it on, the View drops you inside a colorful cartoon cave. It’s peaceful there with the sounds of a nearby stream, crickets and the occasional frog. Vines creep along the rocky ceiling and motes of dust drift down through a spotlight of sun shining through a hole.
It’s the sort of soft landing perfect for someone who has never experienced the sometimes disorienting experience of being suddenly transported to a different place.
Inside the cave, or outside in a serene meadow, you can use an included controller — a slip of plastic that has three buttons and works as a laser pointer and remote control — to select virtual reality experiences and peruse the Google Play store.
At first glance, the entire experience and the device may seem like an odd thing for Google to create. Google is a search engine, the search engine, and the purveyor of the world’s information. But Jazayeri says Google’s decision to get into not just virtual reality experiences, but devices, fits into the company’s mission.
"It all goes back to the company mission statement: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful," he said. "The definition of what information is has grown over time. That includes images and text and has grown to cover video-based content, mobile, and it just kind of keeps growing.
"Experiences are another form of information. Whether experiencing something in the real world or a completely virtual thing."
Google’s original dalliance with VR started with Google Cardboard, a simple sort of headset made of cardboard that uses a basic program Google created to deliver simple VR experiences: often things like 360-degree videos or images.
That interest grew to include something a bit more complex: the Daydream. But, Jazayeri said, the company’s take on VR has always been mobile-first.
"Our goal with Daydream was to bring high-quality VR to everyone," he said. "We can’t change the physics of mobile computing versus desktop computing. But within those constraints of mobile computing we want to crush the boundaries."
Daydream View really isn’t meant to be the core experience of Google and VR; it’s just an early example of sorts, the prototype that other phone makers can look at and design around. Google’s big play is the software that runs VR on Android: Daydream. Already, a number of phone makers and developers have committed to supporting the Android-powered VR platform.
"We are definitely pleased that there has been so much broad commitment," Jazayeri said.
He believes the support is driven by the fact that creating a platform that can deliver high-quality, low-latency experiences is "just plain hard."
"And I think in general that the Android ecosystem is ready to say, ‘Please, let’s do this in a standardized way,’" he said. "It’s not effective if everyone does these one-offs.
"So we’re focused on creating the plumbing. The View is just our version of a headset; all headsets that use Daydream will be compatible with each other."
It’s likely that the Daydream headsets that come after the View will follow in its footsteps to some degree.
That means creating devices designed for everyone, not necessarily the hardcore user.
"Every time you add a level of complexity, you reduce the likelihood that a certain group of people will use it," Jazayeri said.
So in creating the View, Google made sure to keep everything as simple as possible, including the controller.
"It’s very natural," he said. "You just point at things.
"It opens the door to all of these things where the controller could be a bat or a golf club. It maps very well to what we do in the real world. We had to do a lot of things with sensors to get it to work."
While Jazayeri says he’s certain that over time, the device and its input methods will evolve, right now the key focus is on making VR accessible and attractive to as many people as possible.
"At this early stage everyone is trying to get critical mass," he said. "Consistency will trump different form factors and controllers. Platforms have to reach a certain level of audience first."
Gearing up for success
While the design for Samsung’s Gear VR headset, now on its fourth iteration, may not look quite as lo-fi as Google Daydream’s View, it is courting much of the same entry-level market.
The Gear VR is a slick piece of kit that has a touchpad, focus dial, volume buttons and action buttons all built into its body. The front of the thing pops off to reveal a cradle for a Samsung phone. Once it’s plugged in and snapped into place, the phone and headset become a single mobile VR machine.
Where the View drops you into a calming cartoon world, the Gear VR’s home looks like just that, someone’s home, albeit a pricey, very modern one.
From the Home, users can browser their library, check out which of their friends are in VR and purchase apps. Once inside an experience, users can — depending on what the app was developed to do — use the touchpad located on their Gear’s temple to peruse an experience or use a wireless controller to play games.
Where the View’s early VR content seems more geared toward experiential software and casual games, the Gear VR headset is packed with a broader variety of play. Some experiences drop you into a turret fending off invading aliens in a VR take on a game like Space Invaders; others have you facing your fears in a title created by the studio behind Left 4 Dead. There are also some great nongaming experiences.
I find myself most drawn to the Gear VR’s take on Netflix, which allows you to select and watch movies and TV shows on a massive screen inside a posh alpine home that looks like it’s set in Aspen, Colorado.
Samsung’s Tom Harding says the Gear VR has been a big success for Samsung, and that it isn’t just relevant to the success of the broader field of VR, but critical to its growth.
Like Google’s Jazayeri, Harding believes that mobile VR headsets and experiences will be what fuels the growth of awareness needed for VR to succeed. And that, in turn, will stimulate the number of developers creating content, he said.
Samsung got into the business of VR because for the company, which thrives on innovation and deals in technologies like screens and processors, it seemed like the perfect intersection of its experiences.
"We are very excited about VR and remain 100 percent committed to the medium," Harding said.
Where Google is just starting to push out its headsets, Samsung has already seen relatively wide adoption of the Gear headset, and not just by consumers.
For instance, theme parks in Belgium, England and the U.S. have started using Gear VR headsets on specific roller coaster rides to enhance the effect of the rides’ themes. This spring, Six Flags Magic Mountain started using the headset on its New Revolution coaster, allowing customers to experience a futuristic battle to save the planet from an alien invasion while riding the coaster.
"You would never imagine that roller coasters and VR was a good idea, but when you sync users with the view, it can really take you to other worlds," Harding said. "It unlocked a lot of interest across a lot of different areas about what you can do at an experimental level.
"We continue to work closely with third-party developers and our partner Oculus on trying to push that innovation."
While Samsung developed the hardware for the Gear VR headset, it was Oculus — makers of the PC-tethered Rift headset — that created the software.
When Max Cohen joined Oculus back in 2014, he knew immediately what he wanted to work on at the company: mobile VR.
"I instantly knew that was where we were going to get a lot of scale," said Cohen, Oculus’ head of mobile.
In his view, there are two classes of VR headsets: the high end, like the Oculus Rift, and the mobile side, which is casual, easier to get into and far more affordable. And he knew that you can’t really advertise VR — not in a way that sells it.
"The thing about VR is that until you try it, it’s really hard to understand how great it is," he said. "And it’s much easier to try Gear VR than Rift, or Vive or anything else."
Currently, he said, you can demo the Gear VR at more than 15,000 stations in the U.S. alone.
Once the Gear VR started shipping last year, Cohen’s take on the importance of Gear and its ability to evangelize virtual reality turned out to be correct.
"We were seeing that for every Gear sold, 10, 15, 40 people were introduced to the magic of VR," he said. "Every person who tries it wanted to show it to their friends."
While both companies’ belief in the Gear VR headset was proved out, there were still some surprises.
"I was surprised at how many people liked long-form content," Cohen said. "We knew there would be people who wanted to use it for Netflix or Oculus video. But it’s been much more popular than we expected.
"On the game side, there was a lot of discussion about what kind of games would do well. [Former id Software developer and current Oculus chief technology officer John] Carmack said Minecraft would be the holy grail. But we weren’t sure if it would be comfortable or uncomfortable to play."
After cutting a deal with Microsoft and getting Minecraft on the Gear VR, Oculus found that despite it needing a controller that didn’t come with the system, it was still the highest-selling game on the platform.
While Cohen too believes in the power of mobile VR to achieve the sort of scale needed for success, he doesn’t see mobile as a stopgap. He believes mobile VR, like mobile gaming, has a long, broad life ahead of it.
"It’s going to be really good, maybe even better, at casual gaming and watching movies," he said. And he believes that inevitably, the full variety of VR headsets — from the Rift, PlayStation VR and Vive to the Daydream View and Gear VR — will one day share the same virtual experiences and spaces. That people with all sorts of VR gear will be able to interact with one another.
"In the same way that we now have the phone, the laptop and the desktop, I think you will have these separate VR devices," he said. "The holodeck is going to come with external sensors, there will be headsets with ‘inside-out’ that can only track what it sees, and mobile is going to go down to costing zero.
"And whatever you pay, you will get VR that’s compelling."
Each of those markets will thrive, he said.
"Gear VR isn’t a sub-product in service of getting adoption for the Rift," he said. "Gear in and of itself is a very, very successful ecosystem which we will continue to invest in heavily and evolve and innovate on."
10 million Cardboards
Google’s investment in mobile VR hit last week with the Daydream View. Oculus and Samsung’s hit two years ago with the Gear VR. And now HTC seems to be testing the waters in China with Viveport M.
Where Google, Samsung and Oculus all invested in their own hardware, HTC is focusing on building out a storefront for VR on mobile phones.
"We are building Viveport to be the platform and device-agnostic VR app store, and so on the mobile side we’re ready to support apps from a variety of platforms, said Rikard Steiber, senior vice president of VR content at HTC and president of Viveport. "Right now Viveport M, our mobile VR platform that launched in China last month, is supporting Android and Daydream apps.
"I believe mobile will play an important part in speeding up the growth of the VR ecosystem by exposing consumers around the world to the potential of VR. As consumers become aware of the many use cases of VR, we believe that they will want to have more immersive and interactive experiences than mobile can offer today, thus accelerating adoption of high-end VR like the Vive."
Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO and founder of developer nDreams, calls mobile VR massive.
"We as a company are focused on both mobile VR and high-end VR, and it’s hard to tell which is going to be a bigger part of the VR world moving forward," he said. "But we are really excited about what’s going on with Gear VR and the Daydream."
Tom Gillo, nDreams’ vice president of development, doesn’t see Gear VR and the Daydream View as competitors, mostly because he thinks both offer very different sorts of experiences.
"Each has its own idiosyncrasies," he said. "Gear has a joystick or the touchpad on the headset as a controller. I really like the Daydream controller, which is aiming for the same audience as the Wii Remote.
"It’s nice and simple to use. Certainly more comfortable than a touchpad."
And while Gillo sees mobile expanding the market for VR, he thinks it is Google’s Daydream platform, with its lower cost, simpler controller and comfy headset that will really have an impact.
"I think it’s going to expand the market more than anything," he said. "I think you’re going to see lots and lots and lots of phones that support Daydream."
"I think you’re going to see lots and lots and lots of phones that support Daydream."
Once Facebook starts to release social apps for devices like the Gear VR through Oculus, which it owns, Gillo says he thinks things will really take off there as well.
Despite the support mobile virtual reality is getting from the chief companies behind today’s consumer VR efforts. and from a number of the innovators and researchers in the decades-old field of virtual reality, there are some obvious issues with this form of the technology.
It simply doesn’t look as good, and the current mobile headsets don’t offer the same sort of interactions. There is no phone-powered VR headset that can track hand movement or the movement of your body in a larger space. Currently, controls for mobile VR can strip down the experience to something more akin to a 360-degree movie that an interactive piece of virtual reality.
What if someone’s first experience with virtual reality becomes their only experience with the technology because it was on a phone and they simply weren’t impressed?
"There is no question that some people will have that reaction," said Oculus’ Cohen. "That’s completely OK. The product isn’t ready for everyone today.
"But we’re working to close that gap."
Google’s Jazayeri points to the company’s Google Cardboard effort as a sign that there is a real desire from people to check out VR, no matter how lo-fi it might be.
"We designed Cardboard to be about a couple of minutelong experiences," he said. "Given that nearly 10 million Google Cardboards have shipped, I think it has been good for VR."
Mobile VR, like much of the rest of today’s VR, is in its relative infancy, bound to change and evolve.
"Mobile VR is at the brick-phone stage of its evolution," O’Luanaigh said. "We are going to see it evolve so rapidly with new GPUs and CPUs. Position tracking will be coming to mobile VR; they’ll get smaller and lighter. Then augmented reality and virtual reality will combine."
It’s not surprising to find platform-agnostic game developers, but in this embryonic stage of modern consumer VR, the platform holders themselves seem to be pretty agnostic too.
"We are at this stage where we all need to help each other and help this ecosystem grow," Google’s Jazayeri said. "You want the app developers to make money. A lot of the content is being subsidized right now, but at some point you have to reach the level of scale that doesn’t need that."
"I’m very grateful for all of the early investment Samsung has done with VR because we all benefit from it."