The Real Appeal of Mobile Virtual Reality
University of Southern California
Jordan Klein, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jordan
Klein, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90007.
Contact: [email protected]
The Real Appeal of Mobile Virtual Reality
The road to virtual reality is a road trodden, but never fully explored. SEGA VR veered off between prototype and release. The Virtual Boy ran out of gas after launch. Even Facebook-owned Oculus Rift has been cruising for over two years with only the horizon in sight. Yet quietly, a company has reached the road’s end—they discovered a fork. All they had to do was shove a smartphone into a box. With the release of Google Cardboard, Google created a new sector of virtual reality—mobile VR. Untethered, compact, and inexpensive, this new category of device uses a smartphone as its screen and an encompassing container that separates the user’s eyes in order to create the enclosed perception of VR. Notably, many preliminary applications require no input, which frames the device more as a general entertainment product rather than a gaming console or peripheral. This framing of mobile VR as a general entertainment device that augments existing mediums, combined with its financial, spatial, and technological accessibility will cause it to become the form of VR that casual entertainment consumers adopt first.
What do I mean by casual entertainment consumers? I mean middle class people who keep up with popular music through with Spotify. Price conscious people who go to the movies once every month or two. People who game on their smartphones but would never refer to themselves as gamers. Basically, anybody that hasn’t heard about the Oculus Rift.
These consumers will adopt mobile VR first and foremost because of its financial, spatial, and technological accessibility. Looking at some mobile VR competitors financially, the Archos VR glasses are $30; vrAse is $61; the Durovis Dive is $73. Only the Samsung Gear VR and Visus VR cross the $100 mark and they pack additional features such as touch panel input and PC streaming respectively. These prices, relatively cheap for consumer electronics, are significant because American “consumer spending during the 2nd half of 2013 reveals that frugality remains top-of-mind” (O’Donnell, 2014). Buying a mobile VR headset is essentially the equivalent of purchasing a new videogame—a price conducive to birthday presents and non-guilty splurges. Echoing this sentiment, O’Donnel (2014) reports, “Big ticket purchases continue to be approached with caution” whereas “medium ticket purchases such as small…electronics are more likely.” In this regard, the price is closer to the side of non-risk on the spending spectrum, a key factor for technology that has been written off as a gimmick and fad many times before.
Yet beyond the price of the headset itself, the determining variable that will shape the perception of mobile VR as a gimmick or otherwise is the financial accessibility and appeal of its software. If the gaming industry is any indication, the reputation of hardware lives and dies by the quality of its software. It’s why the PS4 and Xbox One are sold at a loss and why the Wii U was proclaimed dead before 1st party titles like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. revived it and caused Nintendo “profit to triple to 36.8 billion yen” (Alpayev & Amano, 2014). Luckily for mobile VR, there is rarely any hardware architecture, only a headset encompassing a smartphone. As a result, mobile VR utilizes the Apple and Google Play Stores—existing and familiar digital distribution platforms. Countless VR enabled apps already exist on these stores with a variety of genres despite the infancy of the medium. This early variety is indicative of the “dedicated advocates in the [VR] developer community” who are creating an ever-growing catalogue of software (Etherington, 2014). For consumers, this means that their medium ticket hardware purchase gains longevity—there will always be new experiences. But even more importantly, the apps themselves follow the smartphone model and range from free to around $10. With the pervasiveness of expensive smartphones and gaming consoles, it’s rare to find a device under $100 with an expanding software catalogue, let alone one with more free content than a person could ever explore. This rarity reaffirms to users that their initial mobile VR purchase is their only significant expenditure required. Combined with the relatively low price of the devices themselves, the great mythos of VR is suddenly financially accessible.
Of course, a user only considers financial accessibility after determining whether they will use the device at all. Usage is challenging to define, but with mobile VR I’m inclined to look at the number of contexts where consumers will use it, or what I’ll call spatial accessibility. Smartphones, for example, are the king of spatial accessibility. Airplane? Check. Lines? Check. Toilet? You got it. While not to the degree of smartphones, mobile VR headsets gain spatial accessibility due to their portability, variety of applications and changing cultural norms regarding technology.
The very first context mobile VR will be used in is personal space—nights where a person spends time on their own with the comfort of media like music and movies. Here, mobile VR will provide people with a movie-theater display instead of a laptop screen and a private concert rather than a bedroom overlaid with music. It will offer a private enclosure for one. Nevertheless, the Oculus Rift can do that, and at higher resolution. The selling point of mobile VR, according to Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, is that there is “no cable attached to the headset and [having] nothing at your side is really freeing. It’s much easier to carry around and show friends” (Stark, 2014). Iribe describes a social context: sharing with others. This usage is unique in that mobile VR is decidedly single person entertainment, making sharing more of a party trick than a multiplayer experience. In this sense, Iribe is confident that, if sharing mobile VR is a party trick, it’s a good one—one that will get people talking and one that will drive purchases.
In practice, the social model Iribe describes depends on the portability of the devices. Companies have realized this and have focused on lightweight, compact, and durable designs very easily carried in a backpack or business bag. In addition to social contexts, these portable design aesthetics also boost mobile VR in a third context: travel. While the use of mobile VR in travel appears similar to personal space on paper (movies on a flight, music on a train), there is a key issue—the presence of strangers. It’s no surprise that people are insecure. Everyone is insecure about something. For some, this vulnerability manifests through their personal appearance and style. For many, it manifests as bad decisions. To illustrate, O’Donnell (2014) reports that 26% of millennials make a purchase that they cannot afford in order to “stay up to date with current trends.” Today, wearable technology is teetering somewhere between awkward and acceptable. On one hand, the Apple iWatch is poised for “sales…somewhere between 10 million and 30 million” in 2015; if the smart phone is an indication, Apple is capable of redefining the entire wearable technology market (Keach, 2014). On the other hand, watches are subtle and “there’s no getting around the fact that you have a camera strapped to your head” while wearing a product like Google Glass (Bohn, 2014). Although mobile VR is more similar to Google Glass than smart watches, I believe that headsets in public will become accepted regardless because of the multitude of products forthcoming. VR not only has products in development from Google, Facebook, Samsung, Microsoft, Sony, and Apple and other tech giants, but also from startups. A common point among all of these companies is a focus on aesthetics. The Snoop Dogg-invested Avegant Glyph, for instance, is a pair of headphones with a visual display in its band. Stylish and framed as a “lifestyle” device, it’s easy to imagine them becoming the next Beats by Dre empire. Google Glass, on the other hand, is an unfair comparison because it has no competitors in augmented reality; there are no other products to saturate the market and add a normalcy to the style. Rather, only VR will gain spatial accessibility in unfamiliar social contexts.
Finally, after a user determines the spatial and financial accessibility of a product, or where they will use it and how much it costs, they will then look at its technological accessibility, or perceived learning curve. From this standpoint, mobile VR is accessible because it lacks additional input and is therefore not conducive to complicated experiences. In fact, all it requires out of the box is a smartphone, a device that “a majority of Americans (56%) own” (Farivar, 2013). Whereas Oculus founder Palmer Luckey believes a “general purpose input device [is] really what is needed for VR to take off in the mainstream,” mobile VR companies have been content to frame their devices as passive media viewers rather than active immersive experiences (Rougeau, 2014). These companies recognize that standardizing input, whether through Bluetooth controllers or motion tracking hardware, would require the casual entertainment consumer to buy a product that they don’t already own and may not be comfortable with. Suddenly, the consumer goes to Best Buy to purchase their VR headset, only to discover that they need to walk across the store to find the Bluetooth controllers, then find an employee because they didn’t research the controllers in advance. Suddenly, the mobile gamers (who don’t view themselves as gamers) see controllers and wonder whether the headset is too hardcore.
This lack of required input also promotes the development of simple, almost passive experiences since the smartphone’s gyroscope and accelerometer are the only variables that players can manipulate. These pseudo-passive experiences, more akin to interactive movies than games, only require players to move their heads on their own accord. This movement is not only intuitive for players, but also easily comprehendible by viewers. A notable problem of advertising VR is the inability to simulate the experience inside of a headset. Movements like a head swivel overlaid with VR footage may alleviate this problem more effectively than VR requiring controllers or complicated hand gestures. And in turn, casual entertainment viewers watching a mobile VR advertisement will watch and see an experience requiring a similar passive effort to watching movies or listening to music—technologically accessible mediums that they’ve been familiar with for years.
With mobile VR checking the boxes for financial, spatial, and technological accessibility, the one final box for reaching the casual entertainment consumer is the “It Factor,” or what makes the devices stand out. For the iPhone, it was the form factor and intuitiveness of the gestures. For the Nintendo DS, it was the introduction of a new play paradigm. For mobile VR, it’s easy to say that it’s the proposition and myth of virtual reality itself. This is true to a degree, but an adage seems relevant: people fear what they don’t understand. People will hesitate to adopt a medium previously bound by the pages of science fiction. The true It Factor of mobile VR is ironically its relatability—the technology’s versatile interactions with existing mediums and its augmentation of those mediums.
Music is one such medium, one due for a “coming revolution” due to VR (Raile, 2014). Already, companies like Jaunt have teamed up with artists like Paul McCartney to deliver interactive content to mobile VR devices. One notable form of this content is interactive concerts: virtual spaces where users can watch their favorite artists perform with remarkable resolution, 3D sound, and depth. Even more importantly, they can watch artists live without buying ticket, waiting in traffic, or fighting the rain. All from the safety of their bed. Experiences like this have been the driving force behind The Who releasing their own VR app and Taylor Swift releasing a 360-degree music video as Raile (2014) notes that the music “industry appears to be staking some flags in the virtual frontier” due to eroding profits. But even beyond artist performances, other developers have created music visualization applications that allow people to “feel” their music with a synesthetic harmony of aural and visual feedback within the enclosed headset. While both of these content forms are compelling on their own, the true differentiation and augmentation of the medium comes from the interactive components. On their first watch, users might notice a lead singer winking at them, but not the drummer catching her drumsticks behind her back. On their second watch, users might notice a pyramid explode as their dubstep drops, but miss the dancing sphinx entirely. Suddenly songs are no longer four minutes of the same content upon repeated listening. Mobile VR adds unpredictability to the medium that it has never known.
Another medium is film and television; like music, this medium is as mainstream as it gets. Every potential mobile VR headset owner has the economic status to have attended a film or two in theaters. Most own televisions. But almost none can afford their own theater. That’s where mobile VR comes in. Oculus and others have already created VR Cinema and comparable apps that transport users to their own private movie theater where they can watch video content. On airplanes, flyers can suddenly watch movies as directors meant for them to be watched—in theaters. At home, introverts can watch their favorite movies with a screen size that dwarfs their laptops and TVs, no pants required. Yet Oculus founder Luckey speculates that this is just the beginning: “when phones get as powerful as the PCs and game consoles [they] will run really rich experiences” (Nutt, 2013). With mobile chips improving yearly, soon there will be no discernable difference between watching a movie in VR and in theaters. Not only that, but adding mobile VR to the medium essentially eliminates the small screen as a viable viewing option. It raises the average quality of viewing experience upward for the entire medium just as it shifted the entire listening experience of music to new heights.
When Google employees decided to shove a smartphone in a box, they probably saw a party trick, not the inception of a new category of virtual reality. By inventing mobile VR, they created a market segment easily accessible on a financial, spatial, and technological level, and more importantly, one that retained the “It Factor” general entertainment functionality of its more expensive brethren like the Oculus Rift. With a head start in the market, these devices will be the first to engage casual entertainment consumers, and they will do so successfully due to the aforementioned factors. Perhaps this, in turn, will drive the average consumer to eventually purchase higher-risk headsets as VR becomes more accepted in social situations. Oculus founder Luckey’s vision “has always been about getting as many people into virtual reality as possible” after all; he believes “Mobile VR is important in doing that” (Stark, 2014). Nate Mitchell of Oculus agrees but views mobile VR as just one step, positing that “to get a billion people in VR, the form factor has to be something you can put in your pocket and take anywhere” (Kamen, 2014). Poculus Rift anybody? But of course, given VR’s bumpy history, it’s crucial that the crowded mobile VR “Face Race” lay the groundwork for a virtual reality society without leaving bad impressions that will destroy the credibility of future devices like the Virtual Boy. We’ve finally crossed the road to VR, but there’s bumpy driving ahead. Buckle up.
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