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The vanishing differences between mobile and desktop VR

"Very soon, the content you're playing on Vive will be very easily playable on what we call mobile VR platforms right now”

The key differences between mobile and desktop VR experiences will disappear within the next few years, according to a panel at Casual Connect USA, but the lower price and broad reach of mobile hardware will remain a unique strength.

Right now, both the desktop and mobile parts of the VR markets have distinct strengths and weaknesses. With the former, the ability to create high-fidelity games with a greater variety of input options is traded off against the very high cost of entry for consumers - particularly those who dont already own high-end PC hardware. With the latter, a more populated marketplace is the reward for developers willing to grapple with the limited capabilities of Samsung's market leading Gear VR headset.

"Mobile VR is much more about VR than it is about mobile. It's more like Oculus Rift than it's like your cellphone"

"It really has the largest addressable market, and the longest tail in the long-run," said Edward McNeill, an indie developer now entirely focused on VR games. Andrew Goldstein, one of McNeill's fellow panelists, concurred. "Mobile has more users," he added, "so if you want to increase your brand, your notoriety, or just get yourself seen, mobile is where to go."

Neither mobile nor desktop are popular enough for huge profits to be a realistic possibility at this stage, but both McNeill and Goldstein championed mobile as the best entry point for indie developers - and independent developers in particular. According to Goldstein, the limitations of current VR hardware are such that conventional ideals like photorealistic graphics to be a secondary concern to quality of experience. This has a levelling effect that favours developers with more limited resources.

"I don't have to worry so much about competing with AAA studios," he said. "In that sense, it feels a little bit more indie friendly. The ceiling is a bit lower. I don't like talking about it in those terms, but that makes it a more friendly environment for a one-person shop."

Both Goldstein and McNeill also asserted that this even playing field also applies to mobile and desktop VR. With Gear VR now established and Google's Daydream headset promising to raise the bar, mobile VR is offering a "high quality experience, worthy in its own right" already. Indeed, McNeill and Goldstein agreed that, in one specific respect, mobile VR is actually superior to both Oculus Rift and HTC Vive: it's untethered, allowing a freedom of movement that will be essential to the future of VR as a whole.

Over the course of the panel, the perceived differences between mobile and desktop VR were assessed and, for the most part, dismissed. When the market for mobile games exploded in the wake of the iPhone and the App Store, the idea that that the best products should be tailored to the unique qualities of a smartphone quickly took hold. Mobile VR does not fit with that idea.

"I don't see it being very long before we have full six degrees of freedom, full head-tracking, hand-tracking"

"It's weird to me that there seems to be such a big division between what people see as mobile VR and the rest of VR," Goldstein said. "Mobile VR is much more about VR than it is about mobile. To me, it doesn't feel like a phone game; it feels like a VR game. It's more like Oculus Rift than it's like your cellphone."

The reason for this is obvious: mobile VR isn't actually mobile. While a device like Gear VR is certainly portable - making it perfect for taking to a friends house, say, or using as a demo unit at an expo or conference - mobile VR users are not playing games on the go. In part, Goldstein said, this is down to the "social acceptance of virtual reality." At present, the use of VR headsets in public would likely receive the same dismissive response that texting at the dinner table did 10 or 15 years ago, and the path to the tolerance that behaviour is now shown will be similarly long - if we ever get there at all.

However, it's also tied to the very nature of VR. In another Casual Connect session, Google presented user research which suggested that, no matter how sophisticated the headset and how diverse the control inputs, good VR experiences have a lot of similarities

"When we say 'mobile VR' it really isn't that mobile. We're not using it in trains or when we're walking down the street. We're finding a space to sit down in our houses," McNeill said. "Google gave a talk yesterday, where it revealed that it's expecting people to have long play sessions [with Daydream], because the time it takes to get your gear set a player you're really wanting to have those longer experiences.

"The content we're building for mobile VR has to be just as longform as content for desktop VR. We're looking at 30-minutes or more in terms of sessions times."

The biggest hurdle for mobile VR, then, isn't visual fidelity (as one might immediately assume), but control. Mobile VR headsets will not comfortably support completely satisfying experiences of that length until a more sophisticated input solution than a control-pad is the standard. Fortunately, the panelists believe that will change far more quickly than the Rift and Vive will come down in price, with Daydream's Wiimote-esque controller just one step in what McNeill expects to be a relatively rapid progression.

"The content we're building for mobile VR has to be just as longform as content for desktop VR"

"I don't see it being very long before we have full six degrees of freedom, full head-tracking, hand-tracking," he said. "Right now, mobile VR is very restrictive in terms of what your input types are like, but I don't see that being the case for very long. Very soon, the content you're playing on Vive will be very easily playable on what we call mobile VR platforms right now."

More than just making mobile VR more attractive to developers from a creative perspective, then, the introduction of these new input options will also make the VR market more open to cross-platform development. Little by little, the differences that do exist between desktop and mobile VR will be diminished, until the main reason for buying a Vive over, say, a future iteration of Gear VR will be visual polish. is a media partner for Casual Connect USA. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.

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Latest comments (9)

Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments4 years ago
Doesn't seem to address position tracking, which is surely the joint biggest difference between "desktop" vr and mobile?
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Kayla Kinnunen Game Director, Roadhouse Interactive4 years ago
Right now that is definitely a big difference. One of the points I was trying to raise on the panel is that the Gear represents a better VR experience than the Rift DK1 (which also didn't have positional tracking when it was released 3 years ago). Positional tracking will be solved for "Mobile VR" and likely within the next few years which could allow those platforms to play what we currently consider "desktop-class VR" experiences.
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Martin Klima Executive Producer, Warhorse Studios4 years ago
I for one am not convinced that the visual fidelity is the least problem Mobile VR has. It seems very difficult for a device with 1000 mAh battery to have the same rendering throughput as a device with 500W power source. For mobile games, this difference is to an extent mitigated by smaller display and cartoonish 2D graphics. This is not a case for VR, where resolution and number of triangles rendered are much more obvious.
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Rafael Brown Creative Director/Co-Founder, Digital Myths Studio, Inc4 years ago
I think there are some huge assumptions here that are historically inaccurate. Mobile has for years talked about creating a console experience and has never achieved it. A mobile device have and will always lag 5-8 years behind the visual fidelity of pc/console. The same holds true for mobile VR. A mobile VR device is battery limited, heat limited, memory limited and bus limited from ever approaching a console or pc experience. Beyond that existing mobile devices show a need for ventilation and cooling (fogging) that precludes them from being played with realtime rendered content for more than 15-30 minutes max. Also, there is no indication that Bluetooth controllers will ever go above single digit percentages in mobile VR unless and until they are bundled free with every HMD. Positional tracking is still being worked on but will not be a standard feature in Gear VR or Daydream as of yet, which says that its adoption is years away. Games need time to be built out for a feature (positional tracking) that doesn't yet exist in those platforms. And the article references playing a Vive game on a mobile VR device in the not too distant future. This is the same argument people made about how mobile would replace consoles back in 2012. Did consoles die? No. Because consoles/PC offer a different experience that mobile gaming can't easily replicate and also because most developers stopped trying to copy pc/console games wholesale. Mobile VR has shown no ability to capture the fine precision of tracking that PC VR has, nor can it really. And mobile VR has shown no ability to mimic the motion controls of PC/console VR. And even if mobile did roll out motion controls, thgey'd never be adoipted by the vast majority of mobile VR users. Mobile VR will be best served by not trying ape console/pc VR but rather recognizing and playing off the strengths of mobile VR. Mobile VR needs to focus on gaze tracking, turn based or slow games, low fidelity stylized visuals, and a mass market that is less familiar with gaming tropes. Until Mobile VR stops trying to bring the same experience from PC/console over to mobile VR, we will see the same mistakes being made that were made over and over in the mobile market. I honestly had Deja Vu while reading the article. Reminded me so much of mobile game industry comments circa 2010-2012.
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Rafael Brown Creative Director/Co-Founder, Digital Myths Studio, Inc4 years ago
Oh and the developer in the article who is enjoying the fact that mobile VR is an indie space had better remember that mobile was once an indie space also. Once mobile VR has tens of millions and not 1 million, all the same big brands and companies will push the indies out of mobile VR just like they did with mobile. There's a gold rush ahead. And anyone without a long term plan will be surprised at how quickly mobile VR changes once install bases increase to saleable numbers.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.4 years ago
I agree Rafael but I think this situation is different. Mobiles could not match the large monitors or control that consoles have and so the experience was never going to be as good.
With mobile VR techniques such as Foviated rendering look likely to close the gap with regards to GPU power, heat, battery etc.
It's always good to wait and see how good that really is before making assumptions but I think that's what they're getting at. I really like Google's input device for Daydream as I think a lot can be achieved with it. I hope they add a keyring loop so you can wear it on a lanyard if you wish.
The lack of tethering is a massive advantage for mobile VR. Add that you'll probably want to upgrade your phone anyway and that running apps on mobiles is vastly more accessible for most people than downloading all the right run-time libs etc. on a PC and the prospect of mobile VR becomes incredibly exciting. The potential user base rises from millions to billions too.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up4 years ago
No technology in history wanted to be tethered by physical means. Cable-less VR is the future.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game4 years ago
I still worry that people can observe people out in the streets, walking through busy crowds and across roads without stopping staring at their phones, and suggesting that a technology that closes off real world vision like VR needs to be untethered. You know the people who will get most hooked into mobile VR are the same phone zombies that walk at you without looking up now.
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Stu Johnson Technical Lead 4 years ago
Andrew beat me to it, but;
"When we say 'mobile VR' it really isn't that mobile. We're not using it in trains or when we're walking down the street. We're finding a space to sit down in our houses,"
With fully immersive VR, there is a damn good reason for that. And one I never expect to change.
We really need to be clear on VR vs AR in these discussions.
AR as in Pokemon Go, Hololens etc.. yeah sure, but the iZombie herds are already out there and becoming a menace.
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