With Facebook-owned Oculus Rift now available on pre-order, and HTC’s Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR expected later in the year, 2016 is gearing up to be the year when virtual reality starts its journey from tech fantasy to must-have accessory.
The Rift, Vive and PlayStation VR are all self-contained virtual reality headsets. This means that the screen and headset come as a single device that you slot over your head and eyes. You then connect the headset to a gaming PC or PlayStation to play amazingly immersive VR games.
Though these devices are currently making the headlines, there is good reason to believe that the longer term influence of VR will be found on smartphones. In fact, VR could be the biggest thing to happen to smartphones in years.
What can we expect from smartphone VR in future?
VR is going to be one of the most exciting things about smartphones of the future. It’ll completely change and open up how we see and view the world. Imagine watching your favourite sports team live in the stadium from the comfort of your living room. Or having face-to-face conversations with friends on the other side of the world in a virtual reality bar or café. Working could also be completely transformed, with everyone using their mobile phone to attend virtual workplaces.
Education could also be dramatically overhauled, with one teacher able to teach hundreds or thousands of students in a virtual lecture hall. The same is true of health and fitness, as you could have your very own personal trainer organising your workouts in a virtual gym.
VR has the potential to break down the walls of the modern world, providing people with a range of new opportunities that have never before been possible.
Why are smartphones so important to VR?
Samsung’s Gear VR (a VR headset that uses your phone as the screen) has already shown how big tech firms are taking their first steps toward making smartphone VR commonplace. It’s very early days, but phones are only just behind the Oculus and the Vive in terms of processing power. In time, using a smartphone for virtual reality experiences has the potential to overtake specialist VR headsets all together.
Mobile phones have two huge advantages over both specialist VR headsets and gaming consoles or computers. One and perhaps most importantly, most of us already own one and will continue to upgrade as new models are released. If most of the technology required to enjoy VR is already in our pocket, then we’re far more likely to give it a try. The only extra we’ll need is a headset, and you can pick up a basic Google Cardboard for a few pounds.
Two, smartphones are advanced enough technologically to offer basic VR experiences already. The screens have the graphic capabilities. The processors have the speed and power. Hardware and sensors inside the phone are more than up to the job of tracking head movements. And all of these things are going to get more refined in future.
Smartphone tech of the future
We’ve already seen the first 4K screen on the Sony Xperia Z5 series. Going forward, and considering the almost lightning-quick speeds of current tech innovation, screens in six or seven years’ time could be 8K, perhaps even 10K quality. Chips and processors will get remarkably more powerful, making current games consoles look pale in comparison. It’ll be like comparing the power of a retro games console like Sega Mega Drive with last year’s powerhouse Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+. This means that smartphones will have the technology to make VR a richer, more lifelike experience we can only dream about at present.
Phone cameras are another feature where VR could be revolutionary. The Giroptic, pictured above, is the world’s first Full HD 360-degree camera and was unveiled recently at the CES in Las Vegas. 360-degree cameras work by having a number of different lenses working together to capture 360-degree pictures and videos. This means you could stand in the middle of Trafalgar Square and get true-to-life selfie of the entire square with you standing in the middle of it.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, writing in a Facebook post, believes that the potential for the VR and Oculus Rift is almost limitless. “After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”
The long-term vision for VR is to have a wide range of uses beyond just gaming, and the smartphone is set to be the driving force. People are undoubtedly going to continue owning one, making them more likely to give VR a try as technology advances. This will change the very nature of how we use our phones on a daily basis, and what we think is possible. Whether it’s shopping in a virtual store or working in a virtual office, limitations are only curbed by imagination and available technology – which is advancing rapidly by the year.