Virtual reality is going mobile. The benefits of a mobile experience in terms of form factor, immersion, utility and fulfilling consumer expectations are clear but not without challenges. And technical hurdles, content and market readiness are all issues to overcome.
The last week in February was host to both Mobile World Congress and the Game Developers Conference. It would be misleading to suggest that VR dominated either event. Nonetheless, it was prominent and there was a palpable sense of hope for VR and what it can deliver despite its early phase of development. Moreover, significant progress is being made even if it's yet to reach the mass market.
Samsung's Gear VR has already sold 5 million units, and during a GDC presentation Oculus claimed high engagement levels with owners using the device at least twice a week (higher for gamers). This is considerable given the greater friction involved compared to just picking up a smartphone. The announcement that Samsung is launching a third-generation Gear VR is a reassuring sign of both companies' ongoing commitment, given that they were the first to define mobile VR.
Google's Daydream platform is also seeing steady progress. Google Cardboard created a healthy platform for Daydream with over 10 million sold, and the emergence of new devices and content partners (most recently Sky in the U.K.) is a strong sign that Google's VR ecosystem is coming together. Expect a lot more news at Google I/O in May.
But despite the size of both the commitment and distribution platforms of those in the West (Facebook, Google, Microsoft), VR activity is arguably most intensive in China. The West may have defined the birth of the smartphone (at least in design terms), but it is the East that is leading the way in virtual and augmented reality in terms of product commercialization and consumer adoption. Recent announcements from Qualcomm are clearly pinpointing that activity with the intention of fostering and accelerating innovation. An update to its VR development kit provides developers with a Snapdragon 835 powered head mounted display (HMD) with features such as 6DOF and eye tracking to enable functionality such as foveated rendering for efficient use of bandwidth. The SDK is the mechanism through which developers can maximize the capability of the hardware and start to deliver immersive apps that maximize the potential of mobile VR.
This is fine, but VR suffers the classic chicken-and-egg syndrome. App developers won't get on board until there's sufficient variety and quality of hardware available, but market demand is limited for manufacturers without applications and content. Any approach has to address both sides of the coin. Qualcomm is building on its HMD reference design with a program that echoes its "QRD" reference design approach with smartphones. Manufacturers can either build products directly from a reference design or work with an approved ODM to more closely specify the design and components. Leap Motion is also making its hand-tracking capability available as part of the program.
All these moves represent promising developments that reiterate why mobile VR will succeed. It leverages the scale and diversity of the mobile value chain from components through to manufacturers, developers and distributors. Whilst it is true that VR hardware and accessories are at risk of outpacing innovation in software and content, we have faith that 2017 will also see progress with the latter. Platform companies such as Google, Facebook and Tencent are investing extensively to deliver the same content experience in VR that people have come to expect from smartphones.
Fragmentation is an issue, but there is also an industry awareness of the problem and how to address it using lessons learned from smartphones. WebVR and Khronos' OpenXR are promising developments that will take time but address the issue directly. VR is at the same point in time as smartphones at the dawn of the iPhone, but prior to the App Store launch in 2009, and we all know what happened next.