Is Phone-based VR officially over?

Adi Robertson, for The Verge:Mobile virtual reality headsets helped millions of people try out VR, but as of yesterday, they’re all but officially a thing of the past. Oculus CTO John Carmack offered a “eulogy” last month for the phone-powered Gear VR mobile headset, saying that the headset’s days were numbered. And Google just revealed that it’s discontinuing the similar Daydream View mobile headset, in addition to omitting Daydream support from the new Pixel 4 phone. The app will still work on older phones, but Google has now given up on a platform it once portrayed as an integral part of Android.

Daydream was announced in 2016, following up on Google’s simpler phone-powered Cardboard headset. At that point, Google projected having “hundreds of millions of users” on Daydream-compatible phones within a couple of years. In 2019, though, not a single current-generation phone supports it. There simply “hasn’t been the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped, and we’ve seen decreasing usage over time of the Daydream View headset,” a spokesperson told The Verge.

The reasons aren’t surprising. Cardboard had made simple VR accessible. The New York Times shipped a million headsets to its subscribers for free. But it was a super cheap, disposable product meant for enjoying short experiences. Making the leap to a consumer headset proved difficult. “We saw a lot of potential in smartphone VR — being able to use the smartphone you carry with you everywhere to power an immersive on-the-go experience. But over time we noticed some clear limitations constraining smartphone VR from being a viable long-term solution,” said the spokesperson.

Google says that people didn’t like losing access to their phones since Daydream effectively required launching into a separate app ecosystem. That wasn’t the only problem with phone-based VR. Carmack noted that immersive 3D apps drained precious battery, and the Gear VR, in particular, was annoying to set up. “Far and away I think the biggest issue was just the friction of getting into it,” said Carmack.

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Phone-based VR also couldn’t deliver the same intense physical experiences as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR. As developers began learning what really worked in VR, the gap became increasingly obvious. Mobile headsets were great for playing virtual reality videos, but VR video was hard to make and monetize, and early cinematic VR companies like Jaunt and Within slowly switched their focus to augmented reality instead. Google acquired several well-known VR apps, including the beloved painting tool Tilt Brush, but most required high-end headsets.

Meanwhile, self-contained headsets got cheaper and more sophisticated, adding hand controllers and inside-out tracking. Oculus filled the Gear VR’s old spot with the Oculus Go mobile headset, and it’s now nudging users toward the Oculus Quest, a more expensive but also far more capable device. When you can pay $200 for the standalone Oculus Go or even $400 for the Quest, a $100 plastic shell doesn’t seem like such a good deal.

Google hasn’t really tried to catch the wave of standalone VR. It initially partnered with HTC and Lenovo on two self-contained Daydream headsets, but HTC backed out of the deal and Lenovo’s Mirage Solo was effectively a development kit. Before this year’s I/O conference, Google virtual and augmented reality head Clay Bavor said the team was in “deep R&D” for VR hardware, “building the Lego bricks that we’re going to need in order to snap together and make some really compelling experiences.” A Google spokesperson also emphasized the company’s work on AR features for mobile search and Maps.

I’ve been there with the original Oculus, the Gear VR, the Daydream, PSVR, the Oculus Go and now the Oculus Quest and the Quest is my favourite far above any other VR headset. I can see where the phone VR is dying.

Roger Stringer spends most of his time solving problems for people, and otherwise occupying himself with being a dad, cooking, speaking, learning, writing, reading, and the overall pursuit of life. He lives in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada