There’s still a gulf in quality between low-end and high-end VR. But for how long?
One of the first issues we had to think about once we decided to work on a product related to VR and the arts was a problem faced by VR developers in all fields right now: Not enough people own a (proper) VR headset.
Let me qualify ‘proper’ for a second. I love the phone VR headsets. I got a Google Cardboard the minute they came out, I’ve got a Samsung Gear and a Google Daydream. I backed NOLO’s positional tracking Kickstarter and I’ve tried out nearly every VR app available on all these platforms.
But the difference between mobile VR in it’s current form and an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive is night and day. It’s not about the resolution or the quality of the optics. Even the refresh rate and head tracking (at least in terms of rotation) is “good enough” with the Gear and Daydream. And there’s some fantastic software – especially related to arts and culture.
But on the cheaper gear you can’t do the one thing that makes high-end VR really magical. You can’t lean closer to a painting. You can’t walk to one side to see how the paint catches the light. You can’t step back to take in the scale.
These things are transformative in terms of getting a sense of immersion and presence. And to get these you have to spend at least £1500 to £2000 on an up-to-date PC and the accompanying headset. That’s a big leap up from a £70 headset with a slot for your phone.
Unsurprisingly, sales of high-end VR are modest. Nobody is publishing official figures (you don’t unless you’ve got something to shout about) but we’re talking somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 world-wide. That’s not a huge audience – especially if your audience is a subset of that.
Gallery Ghost realised early on that – until that changes – the best way to get people to experience what we do is in public spaces or events where we supply the running gear. Other companies are also reaching the same conclusion – hence the rise of VR at arcades, exhibitions and conferences etc.
But it won’t be this way forever. Microsoft claim the headsets that support Windows Holographic will be half the price and work on a much more modest PCs. Therefore there’s a chance that the PC you already own and a £350 headset will get you a decent VR experience. The problem is that – a few press demos and previews aside – there’s been no in-depth reviews of the hardware in the form that will hit the shelves. Will it be good enough? Will it be “slightly better than mobile VR” or “nearly as good as high-end VR”?
If it’s the latter then I personally will get very excited (it doesn’t take much…). Even if it’s the former, then at least that’s a step in the right direction.
And mobile VR itself will get better. I’m just really impatient…