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Low-Cost (Mobile) Virtual Reality Options

EdTechRobyn Reese

In a past post on this blog, we examined the highest quality virtual reality devices that are on the market right now. Currently, the best VR systems available require the use of a standalone computer with a high-powered processor and graphics card, and range in price from $500 to $800 dollars. If you are interested in acquiring one of these and have the budget to do so, click here to read our roundup of the computer-enabled VR headsets. If you just want to experiment with VR, or to incorporate it into your classroom without breaking the bank, read on! 

Lower cost VR systems rely upon the use of a mobile device to provide the processing power. These mobile device VR headsets are essentially holders or viewers that work in conjunction with specially designed mobile apps to produce an immersive experience. This experience can vary in quality, depending upon the screen resolution and power of the phone and the control mechanism and lenses of the headset being used. The first mobile VR headset to be distributed widely was the Google Cardboard, a fifteen dollar headset that was so simple that users could assemble it themselves, or even download plans to print their own. As the Cardboard gathered steam (Ten million units have been distributed since it appeared in 2014), it became apparent that there was a need for headsets with more durability, and that there was a market for competition. Here are some of the best examples of mobile VR headsets that are built to last, low in cost, and reliant on a mobile device. 

Samsung Gear VR

The Samsung Gear Mobile VR headset is currently the most widely known of this category of headsets, and is currently the best-selling unit in this category on Amazon.com. It is also currently the most expensive in this category, with a new model priced at $109. The Gear is often bundled as a giveaway with the purchase of Samsung Galaxy devices, making it more affordable if you are in the market for a new phone. The Gear is designed to be paired with Galaxy family of phones, though it can be used with other mobile devices, albeit with limited functionality. Those who are using the Gear with a Galaxy phone can take advantage of one of its most unique features, the controller, which enables you to manipulate or change the content and gaming experience on the device without removing your phone from the holder to tap the screen or the buttons. 

Reviews indicate that this feature of the Gear is one of the reasons that it is currently at the top of its market, along with the fact that it integrates with the Oculus Store. This integration means that users of the Gear must download an Oculus app that enables them to use the content. Unfortunately, though this means that some of the best games and experiences in Virtual Reality are available to users of Gear VR, it seems that many games experience glitches because the mobile phones does not have the requisite processing power to deliver the full, smooth experience. 

As mentioned above, the Gear VR headset can be used by anyone with a mobile device, however, the feature set is severely limited, based upon the type of phone being used. iOS capable devices do not have access to the Oculus Store, severely limiting the experience. Also, currently the remote control might best be described as "in development", since fewer than ten apps in the store take full advantage of it! Another mark in the negative column for the Gear is the fact that the Oculus store is mainly centered around gaming. It does not currently market a Youtube app, making it more difficult to watch 360 videos put out on that platform, which are among the best educational content for VR available today.

Google Daydream View

The Daydream is the newest (and possibly most hyped) addition to the slate of mobile-enabled VR headsets. Continuing Google's commitment to offering cutting-edge technology at a lower price point, the Daydream View offers an incredibly immersive VR experience, and a controller that is better thought-out than the Gear's, but is currently "affordably" priced at $79.00. It is consistently noted as the most comfortable VR headset on the market, constructed out of lightweight plastic with a soft fabric covering that can be removed and washed. 

The Daydream View has a lot of promise, but currently, it is designed to only be compatible with the Google Pixel mobile phone and a VERY limited list of models manufactured by competitors (an updated list of Daydream-ready phones can be found here).  Also, at this time the dedicated Daydream app store has very little content in it, though what IS there is fantastic for education, as this seems to be Google's primary targeted market for the device. Google Expeditions, the Google Arts and Culture App, and YouTube all provide wonderfully immersive experiences with a variety of informative material. 

Another main strength of the Daydream is its open developer platform, making it possible for those who are interested to create their own apps for inclusion in the Daydream store. This is in keeping with the ease of development and acceptance that characterizes the Android platform, as well as other Alphabet (Google) owned content outlets. On the flip side, it has been reported that some of the Cardboard apps that were designed for Google's lower-cost mobile VR headset do not work well in the Daydream, and can cause vertigo or motion sickness. At this time, the Daydream is very much under development, and may not be the best investment, though it does have great promise to provide the VR democratization that will bring this technology fully into the mainstream. 

Cardboard-Compatible VR Headsets

The last category to consider in mobile VR is an extremely broad category known as "cardboard compatible" headsets. Since the form factor and design of the Google Cardboard have been open since its inception, there are a wide variety of devices that mimic it, in different materials, with different price points and levels of quality. Though none of these devices offer an immersive VR experience on the level with the Gear or Daydream, they have the advantage of being device agnostic, so every user has the same experience, regardless of the type of mobile device that they put into the headset. Here are two of the best-known Cardboard-compatible headsets on the market:

Zeiss VR One: The Zeiss is manufactured by the lens company Carl Zeiss, and as such, it markets the visual experience as being one of the best on the market. You are, essentially, paying for the lenses on this headset, and with a price point just under $100, it is debatable whether it is worth the money. The visual experience in mobile VR is already limited by the resolution of your screen (hence, the complaint that Mobile VR often looks gridded or boxy), and the better lenses cannot fix this visual distortion.

Merge VR: The mobile VR dark horse is the Merge VR foam headset. It is designed to hold phones with all form factors, and stretches slightly to ensure a tight fit to protect your phone from dropping out of the headset. Lightweight and closely fitting, it features two straps for comfort when wearing the device. Though it essentially does nothing but hold your phone in the optimal position for viewing, has no buttons, and requires you to take the phone out of the holder to change apps, for the casual user (or in a classroom setting), the Merge is more durable than the traditional Google Cardboard and can be cleaned between uses. With a $40 price tag, it provides few frills, but is the most affordable of all options, while maintaining comfort, cleanliness, and functionality.