An Era of Smartphone Virtual Reality is Coming
A storm is brewing. Slowly, but steadily, the trickle of entrepreneurs working on a slew of technologies to make immersive worlds a reality coming through our doors at Edge is turning into a healthy stream. Week by week, they are getting smarter, more ambitious, and more importantly, building experiences we’ve never seen before, which were just plain impossible to build even 24 months ago.
When I first tried Magic Leap’s prototype before we invested in the company, it became clear that truly useful, mobile augmented reality was going to be ubiquitous within my lifetime. What became even more clear was that in the short term, smartphones would expose millions of consumers to the important use cases of VR before a product like Magic Leap’s became ubiquitous. The device in your pocket will be the gateway, tipping you towards purchasing your first dedicated mobile VR device somewhere between 18 and 48 months from now.
What will be the use case that gets you through this gateway? No one knows for sure of course, but here’s my short list of experiences that are already starting to peek out at us:
1. Watching TV in VR with your friends:
It’s a Sunday evening, and your core friend group of Game of Thrones fans are firing up their smartphones. You open up your app, set up a VR room, with the equivalent of a giant TV screen suspended in 3D space in front of you. After inviting your friends to the room, you each settle back to watch the episode together in the virtual space, surrounded by a 3D reconstruction of Westeros. As the episode unfolds, you hear your friends gasping or laughing, using the synchronous voice chat to communicate as if they were sitting right there with you, in your living room.
2. Watching eSports in VR with thousands of fans:
It’s that time of year — The International final match is a few minutes away. You pull out your smartphone, logging into the VR room set up for the final. Around you in virtual space are thousands of avatars of Dota 2 fans on their own mobile VR headsets. In front of you is the equivalent of a giant jumbotron streaming the match, flanked on either side by a massive wall of stats and a message stream from Twitch, going into a flurry of activity as the match begins, as you lean back into your comfortable couch at home.
3. Reading a book in VR:
You are getting on a plane. Not wanting to strain your eyes or back hunched over your Kindle or paperback, you slip your iPhone into a mobile headset. Pulling up your Kindle library, you hit VR mode and begin reading Armada, Ernie Cline’s latest novel, suspended as a huge page in front of you in virtual space. Around the book, is a 3D reconstruction of a scene from the novel, which you’ve been able to download from the VR scene store in the app.
4. Coding in VR:
As a student in a dorm, you don’t quite have the budget for a high end monitor, or the more common multiple monitor set up at tech companies, but would still like the ability to program without having to squint at several hundred lines of code on your laptop. Instead, you open up an app on your smartphone that allows you to SSH into a terminal and program on a massive virtual screen once you’ve put on your mobile head mounted display. Even better, you can set up multiple SSH terminals in the virtual space, allowing you to code on as many monitors as you’d like, with no additional hardware other than your smartphone* and a device slightly more comfortable than a Google cardboard**.
5. Writing in VR:
You’re getting on a plane from San Francisco to New York and want to spend the time productively by writing your article/report/memo/song/ $randomTextDocument. To focus, you open an app on your smartphone that allows you to pick a Hawaiian beach, or a hilltop in India, or a busy Los Angeles coffee shop as your background, and then renders a giant text editor in front of you. You pair your phone with a bluetooth keyboard, insert the phone into your mobile HMD of choice, and type away, immersed in your personal writing environment.
6. Visualizing data and objects in VR:
Our ability to visualize complex, multi-dimensional information like aggregate stock price fluctuations, 3D models of organs during surgery, living and work spaces, and terrestrial routes becomes much better in VR. It won’t be long before you’ll be able to hit a VR mode button inside your stock brokerage app, or apartment listings site, to help you visualize financial, spatial, and temporal information in a way that’s much more intuitive to understand than a flat, 2D rendering of the same data.
This list could go on — I’ve only mentioned a few uses, omitting several out of respect for the founders, engineers, and designers toiling away on their VR projects who’ve been gracious enough to meet with us. Still, I do think this shortlist captures the direction of smartphone based virtual reality in the coming months, and I can’t wait to see these hit the app stores.
*smartphone = a phone with a screen that’s larger than 5.1 inches — preferable with a low persistence display, like the Samsung Note4 **mobile HMD = a low cost upgrade to a Google Cardboard — my personal favorite is this one for $15 Plug: If you’ve got your own project, and want to talk — get in touch!