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Developing for Mobile VR - pt.1: A brief overview of the current landscape

VR design 1There are currently two main strands of VR development - tethered and untethered, or PC-based and mobile-based. PC-based, tethered VR utilises the powerful graphics cards within desktops to run high-end VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Mobile, untethered VR utilises a user’s mobile phone device within a plastic, cardboard or foam VR headset, relying solely upon the processing power offered by that particular model, which will vary wildly from handset to handset.

This blog post is about developing for the latter: mobile, untethered VR and some design considerations and pitfalls to look out for when doing so. But before getting into that, let’s look at why you should.

Mobile VR is currently the cheapest way for consumers and enthusiasts to get into Virtual Reality, with a range of mobile handsets supported and low cost headsets available. Whilst this comes with some issues (more on that later) current and future models of mobile handsets are powerful enough to render convincing VR experiences that are comfortable for most (at a solid 60Hz on Samsung Gear VR). Google Cardboard has shipped over 5m+ units whilst Samsung claim over 1m concurrent users are active within the Gear VR ecosystem at any given time.

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Headsets range from the cheap Google Cardboard v2 (often free at events) to plastic variations that are a bit more durable, or even foam versions like Merge VR, to Samsung Gear VR and a whole range of other mobile device connected options releasing soon. Whilst having range and options is good, to develop VR you ideally need a clear set of known hardware limitations and capabilities to ensure a solid, smooth, comfortable experience for end users. Therefore will concentrate on the current best of class options, Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream VR (releasing later in 2016 but you can start developing now, see my previous blog post about it here).

Because of the low cost of entry for end users and consumers, the mobile VR market is rapidly growing with hundreds of new apps becoming available each month. 2016 has seen a real increase in general awareness of VR amongst consumers, buoyed by the launches of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive and imminent release of Sony PlayStation VR in October, along with VR appearing at many public facing events and shows.

However being based on Android (although iOS does support Cardboard now and vice versa) it means it is easy to publish titles on the Play Store and already we are seeing lots of cheap, poorly designed VR applications that don’t provide great experiences. Therefore the Gear VR and Daydream marketplaces are (or will be when released) curated for quality control.

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Whilst this means there are additional barriers to publishing your apps, for end users it helps guarantee a level of quality of experience and overall, will boost VR adoption since comfortable experiences see users return, or what to continue to try others. So in the short term, slightly more of a headache for developers, but in the long term, better for everyone as VR is helped towards mass-market adoption.

There are limitations to mobile VR though, which need to be considered before deciding upon which platform you’re going to support. Firstly, as the name suggests, mobile VR content is driven by mobile devices, not high-end powerful PCs. Whilst newer devices are certainly providing more processing power than ever before, there are still limits to how far and how complex a scene can be rendered in 3D (if you choose to go down that route). However that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective since a 3D generated scene doesn’t have to be photorealistic in order to be convincing or immersive for users. Low poly worlds can be just as fun and effective within VR that are far easier to generate on mobile with great performance.

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Faceted Flight : Canyon Runner on Samsung Gear VR

Another aspect to consider is despite being untethered, allowing the user freedom of movement without being cabled to a PC, currently it’s not possible to track the position of the headset, meaning that no matter how far the user wanders, their viewpoint will only ever update in a 3 directions. This means that a lot of the full VR experiences they may have tried on tethered VR, where they can lean in and get up, close and personal with characters from any angle, or walk around within a room-scale area, are not possible with mobile VR. However there is hardware being worked on that will allow this eventually.

So with less processing power available and no positional head tracking currently possible, it’s understandable why mobile VR excels at and is well supported for 360º photos and video applications. Without any form of real interaction though, if you are just looking around looking at or watching something, there is argument that this isn’t proper VR. Others would also state that with the advances being made with mobile VR and available processing power, developers should target full, high-end VR since the gap will only narrow and whatever you develop today for mobile VR will have a limited shelf-life, as the hardware advances rapidly over the next months and years.

Time to get creative then beyond just another 360º video player or viewer. My next blog post will look at what tools you need to create mobile VR and provide a number of guidelines and design considerations to bare in mind whilst creating VR applications for handset-powered headsets.

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Welcome to VRSE 360º Video Still

By Sam Watts

Sam Watts has been involved in interactive, immersive content production for over 15 years, from learning development and simulation to AAA and casual games. Currently employed as Operations Lead for Make REAL and Game Producer for Tammeka, he keeps busy by evangelising the possibilities and real world benefits of immersive technologies like VR and AR to anyone who will listen. Tammeka’s first VR game Radial-G : Racing Revolved launched alongside Oculus Rift in March and HTC Vive in April 2016. Make REAL are currently powering the McDonald’s “Follow Our Foodsteps” VR farming experiences at numerous agricultural and countryside shows around the UK.

Disclaimer: In the rapidly changing and advancing tech climate around VR, where things never stay still for long, this blog is written as is at this point in time of publishing. In a month or two, some elements or details may be incorrect or surpassed with new technology that now does do what I say it currently cannot.

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