Jumping into “Desktop VR” can be an expensive proposition even with all the recent price drops. The “big 3” desktop VR headsets with controllers are hundreds of dollars each. A PlayStation VR with camera + controllers $400, Oculus Rift + Touch $500 and HTC VIVE $600. Then you have to get the “desktop” device to run it. A new PlayStation 4 or 4 Pro will run you $300-$400 and low end VR compatible PCs Start around $800. If this is all a bit too much for your budget Mobile VR may be the way to go. Using the power of the smartphone you already own, a mobile VR headset is the way to view 360/VR video and get into VR experiences and games on the cheap.
Before we get into what to look for in a mobile VR headset let’s take a quick look at how we got here. Arguably the first Mobile VR headset, Google Cardboard was introduced at the Google I/O 2014 developer’s conference, where cardboard viewers were given away to all attendees. The Cardboard viewer consisted of a sheet of cardboard cut into a specific shape, 25mm diameter lenses, magnets, Velcro and a rubber band that had to be assembled by the user. The smartphones internal gyroscope measured the users head rotation & the internal magnetometer of the phone detecting movement of the magnets, using them as a switch to perform an action in the headset. Version 2 of Google Cardboard was released at Google’s I/O 2015 developer conference. The update allowed for larger phones to be used, included less assembly steps, larger 37mm lenses, and a more reliable touch switch replacing the magnets. These initial headsets were far from perfect but proved the point that you could get a decent VR experience with just a smartphone. In 2017 of course there are many different designs of mobile VR headsets made by dozens of manufacturers. So what features should you look for in a mobile VR headset?
Is your smartphone capable of VR?
First make sure your phone is capable of being used in a VR headset at all. You need to have an Android phone with Android version 4.1 (Also known as “Jelly Bean”) or higher, or an Apple phone with iOS version 8.0 or higher. You phone also needs to have an internal gyroscope, most phones do, but check the manufactures website if you are unsure. If you are looking to use a headsets with magnet switches, you will need to know if your phone has a magnetometer. (Sometimes referred to as a compass) Again most phones do, but check if you are unsure.
There are 2 features to look for in a Mobile VR headset that you might not think are important but will go a long way to your overall comfort using it. The first is focus adjustment, and even if you have perfect eyesight this is something you want to have. Smartphone thicknesses can vary quite a lot and this can change the distance between the VR headsets lenses leaving you slightly out of focus if you have no adjustment. If you do wear glasses it is even more important to have a focus adjustment. Some brands of VR headsets will say they are large enough that you can wear your glasses with the headsets on, however this isn’t ideal. Your glasses and the VR headsets lenses can come in contact with each other leading to scratches on the lenses. Also the arms of your glasses may be pressed into your head by the headset or straps, leading to discomfort.
The second feature you may not be thinking about is IPD adjustment. IPD stands for "interpupillary distance" and is the distance between the pupils of the eyes. Most VR headsets have the distance between the centers of the lenses set around the average human IPD of 64mm. However actual human IPD can vary quite a lot, as narrow as 52mm and as wide as 72mm. A mobile VR headset with both focus and IPD adjustment will go a long way in preventing eye strain, fatigue and headaches.
Accessories for your VR headset - Because it's all about comfort
Beyond making your eyes comfortable you want the device to feel comfortable wearing it. Wider head straps are more comfortable than thin straps and 3 point head straps, with one strap passing over your head, take more of the weight off of your face. Look for thick wide padding for greater comfort on your face. Sound is a big part of VR so you will need earphones of some sort. Some mobile VR headsets do have integrated headphones that you can plug your phone into. (If you happen to have one of the new iPhones without a standard 3.5mm headphone port, you will need to use an adapter). Most mobile VR headsets do not have a magnetic or touch trigger button and many VR games and experiences require a game controller to use them, so you may want to consider getting a Bluetooth game controller to go with your headset. Many headsets do come with a controller but make sure it is an actual game controller and not just a phone remote that does little more than control the volume and playback of songs.
Mobile VR Headset - the experience will only get as good as your phone is
Of course your Mobile VR experience is only going to be as good as your phone. A more powerful phone with a large higher resolution screen will give you a better overall experience. If you happen to have an Oculus Gear VR or Google Daydream compatible phone you will want to spend the extra money on one of these VR headsets rather than a generic one. Both systems have better head tracking, an integrated VR app store and will provide you with a much better experience. The list of current Gear and Daydream compatible smartphones is below:
Oculus Gear VR compatible phones: Samsung Galaxy Note8, S8, S8+, S7, S7 edge, Note5, S6 edge+, S6 and S6 edge. (There are different models of the Gear VR, make sure you get the right one for your phone.)
Google Daydream compatible phones: Google Pixel, Google Pixel XL, ZTE Axon 7, ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe, Motorola Moto Z, Motorola Moto Z Force, Huawei Mate 9 Pro, Porsche Design Mate 9, ASUS ZenFone AR, Samsung Galaxy S8, Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and LG V30