Your smartphone has already replaced your sat-nav, your MP3 player, your TV remote and a host of other devices. So why shouldn't it replace your virtual reality facemask?
With Facebook betting billions on the success of Oculus and Sony trotting out its own VR headset, an Edinburgh-based company called Eyedak has introduced a more affordable alternative. The vrAse is a headset that uses a similar-looking set of lenses to Oculus Rift, but instead of having its own display, you slot your phone in. We tried one on at the Wearable Technology Show, and were pleasantly surprised.
The unit we tried on was obviously a prototype, with the whole assembly apart from the lenses made from 3D-printed parts. That said, it felt comfortable and not too heavy, even with a Galaxy Note 3 slotted into the front. The vrAse Kickstarter page says you can use most new smartphones, including the iPhone 5/5S, the HTC One, Xperia Z and Galaxy S4, in the same case.
The kit might look a little home-made, but the visuals are really surprising, in a good way. We didn't have a first-generation Oculus Rift on hand to compare, but it's a very similar (and, dare we say it, possibly slightly superior) experience. We played a couple of basic, Unity-based demo games and experienced the same exhilirating vertigo of being able to look around a 3D scene with a turn of the head.
Because you're looking at a phone screen through a set of magnifying glasses, pixels are clearly visible, meaning a vrAse with a Note 3 can't compete with newer Oculus models, especially the next-gen Crystal Cove. But that's using a Note 3, which has a pixel density of 386ppi. The vrAse has the advantage that it gets a display upgrade when you get a new phone, so slot in an Oppo Find 7 with its 538ppi screen, and those pixels may well shrink out of sight.
open, affordable and ar-ready
The big advantages for the vrAse, though, are the price and the open nature of the platform. Francisco Hernandez, Eyedak's COO, told us that the vrAse would sell for "less than $100", and that it would take a small team of developers "a couple of days" to adapt even a detailed Android game like Grand Theft Auto III for full face-mounted 3D. Video is even easier: because the system uses side-by-side 3D, there's no fancy polarisation or timing required, it's simply a matter of splitting the screen to show two angles.
There are further advantages to using your phone, too - because you have a camera on the back of your phone, the vrAse could make for some very interesting augmented reality apps, and because there's no need to link it to another device (other than possibly a game controller), it's battery-powered and highly portable.
In the next year or so, the billion-dollar VR frontrunners are likely to offer a more impressive, immersive experience, but we like the simplicity, the affordability and the open nature of the vrAse. Eyedak says it'll be going on sale in autumn or winter this year.