Musing #10: My tryst with virtual reality

Virtual is getting real this year with all eyes on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive to set the bar for how people perceive virtual reality nearly two decades after it earned itself a bad reputation. However, most people’s first experience with VR has been and perhaps will be with the Google Cardboard. My own experience dates back to nearly 2 years ago when I first got myself a “Google Cardboard”. I put it in quotes because although there was no official kit available, I got mine from China through Amazon US which is a very convoluted route of purchasing something. The reason however was that it didn’t cost much more when compared to getting it from a Chinese marketplace like AliExpress and Amazon’s refund policy is much better. In fact, I got mine for free because the product failed to reach me within the stipulated time.

However, the cardboard approach is only a stop gap one for it is not meant to be a durable one. It picks up smudges rather easily and requires the pre-occupation of at least one hand. So, the next step in affordable VR is to get a more durable unit with straps that would offer a hand free experience. It is in this endeavour that I had picked up a unit called ‘Converge VR’ about a year back. It offered a more intuitive way of interacting with Google Cardboard apps by replacing the magnet with a clicker that tapped on the screen, making it theoretically operable with a lot more devices that don’t come equipped with magnetometer at the precise spot where the first version of cardboard required it to be. Also, an adjustable strap as well as lens meant that I could get a sharper and focussed image while not having to have my hands give the impression of holding my face from falling off.

Alas, things didn’t quite work out as expected. For a price of over 1.5k INR, the product fell short on a number of fronts. For starters, the clicker was simply a hit or miss affair and worked intermittently if at all on most of the phones making app interaction a huge pain. Also, the weight distribution after putting in a ginormous phone like the OnePlus One made the headset really uncomfortable to balance over the face and it repeatedly came sliding down over the nose. However, the worst thing was that a noble intention from the maker of this device made it completely unusable for me. When I met him in person, he switched the normal lens with an experimental one offering a larger field of view (FOV) and while on paper in seemed like a good idea, it ended up being the worst thing I agreed to for it made the headset completely unusable by inducing giddiness within 5 minutes of anyone wearing it. I assume it is not motion sickness but rather some focus issues with the experimental lens but nonetheless it made the device impossible to use to the point where it is lying largely unused.

After such experiences one may be a bit cagey about trying random VR headsets, most of which are based on Google Cardboard. I see now that Converge VR is moving things forward with a newer version (DK3) but call me unconvinced about trying it out unless I can get a huge discount for returning my previous headset. As things stand, the Google Cardboard is still going to be the entry point of VR for most since it is now part of the packaging of mobiles as well as Happy Meals amongst other things. The moot point here is to enjoy the VR experience keeping in mind the price point you are enjoying it at. For being free, Google Cardboard does a pretty good job if you keep your expectations paired down. One may argue that the next step forward is the Gear VR (or call it Oculus Mobile). But when you consider the price it comes at with the need for a flagship Samsung Galaxy phone, you could just as well jump to the Rift or Hive should it be available to you, for a high end desktop is bound to be cheaper than the phone. The times we live in!

The Oculus Rift has certainly made a name for itself for being the first mover and being acquired by Facebook which certainly deepened its R&D wallet. It has also built a purpose-specific storefront and one may postulate that FB’s intent is to create a virtual social network but that won’t be as accessible if the Rift continues to sell for $600. On the other hand, as someone with a huge Steam library, I am inclined much more to the Vive for its integration with Steam and the general goodwill of the PC community that Valve enjoys. The freedom of movement that comes with the Vive is also a key differentiator compared to the Rift. However, with the price tag of Vive and a powerful PC, one would hope that an affordable PC + Vive bundle comes a bit down the line for those with 5-year old PCs (Sorry Apple! The iPad Pro won’t do) for it would certainly usher in a new dimension. Irrespective of how things pan out, here’s one for the future of technology.