The first time I ever believed virtual reality might really be the future was at CES 2013, in a parking lot outside of the Las Vegas Convention Center. I put on a huge pair of goggles made of half duct tape, half hopes and dreams, and found myself walking the corridors of a virtual spaceship. I looked up over my left shoulder, and was suddenly staring into a shower of sparks coming from a pipe above me. I can’t remember the exact sound I made, but it was of genuine, abject terror. That was my introduction to the very first prototype of the Oculus Rift.
More than two years after that first trip, the Rift is still the VR industry’s best demo (though HTC’s new Vive may be coming for that throne) and its best-known name. It’s a hugely powerful kind of virtual reality. But you can’t buy it yet. You can’t buy Sony’s Project Morpheus, either, or the Vive. If you have a smartphone, though, you don’t need to.
My own Nexus 5 first became a virtual reality portal at Google I/O, in June of 2014. On our way out of the convention hall, after Google’s epic annual developer keynote, every attendee was handed a small cardboard package. We spent ten minutes confused, and ten more complaining about the crappy swag, but eventually figured out it was a sort of face-dock for your phone. So we folded the pieces together, and dropped the phone into the obvious slot. One pull on the attached magnet, and suddenly I was flying through Google Street View and YouTube videos in virtual reality. Of all the incredible things Google had shown off that day—smartwatches, car software, crazy Rube Goldberg machines—a piece of cardboard was the coolest.
In just 16 months, virtual reality seemed to go from impossible to impossibly easy. And while the Oculus Rift headset has toiled in development limbo, a whole virtual-reality industry has grown around a device that you already have in your pocket.
Right now, your phone is the single most important device in VR. It’s the engine for a dam-burst of creativity from Samsung, Avegant, Carl Zeiss, and even Dodocase, that twee-est of Apple case makers. Even Oculus itself has embraced smartphone VR, through Samsung and its Galaxy-compatible Gear VR headset. In fact, it was the Gear VR that convinced programming legend John Carmack to join Oculus in the first place, says Nick DiCarlo, who runs the virtual reality team at Samsung. “We showed him mobile, and he’s like ‘whoa. Now I have this even bigger vision for that.'” At GDC this week, Carmack threw his and Oculus’ weight fully behind Gear VR. “The official formal strategy,” he said, “is that Oculus goes big, full consumer [push] on Samsung’s next release cycle.”
The emphasis on smartphone VR is not altogether surprising, given that most of the ingredients to turn your phone into a virtual reality wonderland are already there. It probably has a good screen. It almost certainly has enough processing power to show you a movie in virtual reality, or to play a simple VR game. Its accelerometer and compass are good enough to handle head-tracking, which has always been a challenge for VR makers to get right. It’s taken Oculus two years and counting to go from duct-tape prototype to commercial product; Google’s shipped more than 500,000 Cardboard units in about half that time.
More importantly, your next smartphone is going to be really, really powerful, and it’ll probably have a 4K or better screen. The one after that? Forget about it. Mobile computing is on such an insane trajectory, says DiCarlo, that you’d be crazy not to just jump on the rocketship. “It’s pretty easy to draw these curves where [a smartphone] starts being better than Xbox 360,” he says, “better than all these things we’re accustomed to, really really quickly. Stuff that is relatively new, and the phone is going to be more powerful than that in one, two, three, five, ten years.” If that’s true, he says, and all evidence supports that it is, “what else would you do?”
The first goal of the VR industry is to just get people to try it
Samsung’s decision to pursue the Gear VR was also born from a desire just to make something. Anything. Virtual reality is still so new that the company wanted to give people an approachable introduction. “I mean if you’re somebody who will buy virtual reality sight-unseen,” DiCarlo said, “then you don’t need a gentle step to get there. But most people are not in that camp, so powering it with a smartphone that they already know and love is a great way to give them a relatively modest step.”
That’s why so many virtual reality hopefuls are turning to your phone. “If you want a short-term, really high uptick in VR, the phone is absolutely the way to do it,” says Ed Tang, founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Avegant. His company’s Glyph looks a little like a hyper-futuristic version of Beats headphones. It uses your phone to display movies and games, but does all the VR work inside the headset. “You can sell a $10 or $20 piece of cardboard, or a $50 to $200 plastic case to stick your phone in, and everyone already has smartphones,” Tang explained. “You strap it to your face, and you have a relatively acceptable VR experience.”
That’s what executives at Carl Zeiss found, too. The company has a long history of building ultra-sharp camera lenses, and VR was a natural extension—everything but the optics is handled by your phone, and Zeiss is really good at optics. Andreas Klavehn, the company’s director of multimedia devices, told me that after seeing Oculus capture people’s imaginations, and after trying it for themselves, Zeiss wanted to get involved. Rather than try to replace a device you already own, Zeiss built the VR One, a headset with interchangeable trays that will accommodate any phone with a screen sized between 4.7 and 5.2 inches.
Zeiss and Avegant are also making a broader bet, though. They’re still focused on developing their display technology instead of smartphone-based software, or trying to make money from cardboard cutouts. They’re preparing for a future they both see coming: eventually, you’re going to ditch your smartphone altogether.
The Avegant Glyph Photos by Jeff Enlow/WIRED
Look at secretive augmented reality start-up Magic Leap, and Microsoft’s HoloLens, and even Google Glass. They all imagine a future where your phone isn’t your primary device. Maybe you don’t have a phone at all. “It’s going to be some sort of wearable device,” says Avegant’s Tang, “some sort of glasses or display you put on your head. Maybe you have some embedded computer attached or whatever. If that’s really the trend where everyone is going, does it make sense to build a smartphone-based product today?”
For his part, Samsung’s DiCarlo says that if that future is coming, it’s a long way off. And there’s a lot of work to be done in the meantime. “The screen for the Note 4,” he tells me, “is really just the bare minimum for VR.” To provide adequate resolution at every angle you’d need to be playing 10K video at 30 frames per second; forget downloading that, much less streaming it. “Stream is what everyone wants,” he says, “but now we’re starting to challenge our internet infrastructure.”
So yeah, there’s a lot to do. Gaming, the most impressive VR application, is still not ready: the technology and the games are just too expensive. VR films are likewise incredibly time and resource-intensive. We’re talking about 360-degree, completely immersive video that is happening all around you, something unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.
But progress is fast. The latest Gear VR, compatible with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, is lighter and more comfortable than the previous model, and the S6’s pixel-dense screen instantly makes the experience better. And the best thing about the onrush of virtual reality devices has been how quickly we’ve discovered new implementations for them. Gaming remains the market most familiar to consumers, but Oculus recently stole the show at Sundance with an immersive short film about a robot and a dog. Qantas is handing out Gear VRs to its first-class passengers, which looks ridiculous but might be a brilliant way to pass nine hours watching movies between continents. Oculus and Samsung talk about “casual VR,” and Avegant is very intentionally building something that looks a little less ridiculous when you wear it on the train.
We’re only in the very beginnings of the virtual reality movement, and everything will change a thousand times before it ever settles. Maybe in a few years your VR device will attach unnoticed to the frame of your glasses; maybe it’ll be powered entirely by a button on your shirt, or, I don’t know, your brain waves. We’ll use VR for everything from simple games and movies to robotic surgery and wildly futuristic military applications—hell, we’re already doing some of those things. Technology is crazy like that.
Everything will change a thousand times before it settles.
But I keep going back to one of the first demos I saw on that first Oculus Rift. It wasn’t of a game. It was a simulation of a small movie theater, with red velvet seats and a huge curtain that pulled back to reveal a big screen. (I think I watched Superman, or maybe Prince of Persia.) You could sit alongside your friends’ avatars, Oculus proposed, and all watch the same movie at the same time, however far away you were in real life.
The Oculus Rift’s VR Cinema app Oculus
This is hardly an earth-shattering use of virtual reality. It’s kind of a kitschy demo, but it really works. I leaned back on the couch, and actually felt like I was sitting in a theater. It was transformative. And that technology, those movies? That’s all ready right now with a Gear VR and Galaxy smartphone. The handset you own is powerful enough, the price is right, and here VR serves a simple and valuable purpose: the convenience of watching Netflix on your phone, with a screen that feels much bigger than five inches, and a chance to connect with far-flung friends. That should be more than enough to convince people to drop $25 on a crazy-looking pair of cardboard goggles.
It’s also enough to make anyone understand the truly transformative potential of virtual reality, and to start dreaming about its uses and applications. “The awareness of VR outside of the passionate tech community we all live in every day,” DiCarlo tells me, “is pretty low. It’s a problem we have to solve in the future, among all of us.”
The one thing everyone I spoke to agreed on was that the best possible thing for the virtual reality industry is to get everyone to try it out. And why wouldn’t you? The complicated part is already in your pocket.