Creating a virtual reality headset from your phone

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A surge in popularity has hit the world of virtual reality (VR) gaming over the past few years. The technology has become more widespread and more affordable, allowing more and more players to elevate their gaming setup by adopting virtual reality. As of 2022, the VR gaming market is valued at more than $7.5 billion and is projected to reach $37 billion by 2028 thanks to growing demand and expanding diversity of VR games and devices.

Despite the rapid advancement of virtual reality technology, VR gaming setups are not a cheap purchase. If you or your kids are simply curious to know what VR is like, but you don’t want to spend a bunch of money right away, there is good news. You can use your phone as an inexpensive way to explore virtual reality.

What is a mobile VR headset?

A standalone headset like the Meta Quest 2 can operate without a computer or smartphone. It’s capable of downloading or streaming games using only an internet connection, but can also connect to the Meta Quest app to access more content. A mobile headset, on the other hand, relies on a smartphone to create the virtual reality experience.

In a mobile VR headset, your phone slides into a compartment behind two lenses that go in front of your eyes, creating a stereoscopic image that appears in 3D. When you wear this setup on your head, gyroscopic sensors within the phone track your movement, and the VR image adjusts accordingly - so you can feel like you are moving through the virtual space.

What can you do with a mobile VR headset?

By enabling VR experiences on a smartphone, mobile headsets offer some truly unique video viewing and mobile gaming experiences. Many apps, games, and video platforms offer VR content that you can view on your phone. Por ejemplo:

  • Video: Youtube and other video-sharing websites have a growing number of videos in VR format, which appear in 3D when viewed through a headset.
  • Games: Many apps now offer mobile gaming in VR. Most of these work with a handheld Bluetooth controller, which may come with a mobile VR headset or can be purchased separately, depending on the model.
  • Travel: Virtual travel is becoming more popular through VR. There are online videos, Google Earth VR, and various mobile apps that can transport you virtually around the world.
  • Education: Virtual reality is becoming a popular tool for education. Several videos and apps can teach about topics such as history, science, or geography by taking you through lessons or reenactments in 3D.
  • Fitness: VR for exercise is starting to catch on among gamers, and several mobile apps are designed to get you moving. A mobile VR headset that attaches securely to your head can let you work your arms and legs while playing.
  • Events: Virtual and real-life events such as concerts, conferences, and competitions may host VR experiences that you can attend by using your smartphone and a mobile headset.

A mobile VR headset enables many of the same experiences as a standalone headset. However, not every game you might want to play in VR will be available on a smartphone setup.

How does smartphone VR differ from dedicated VR headsets?

Headsets that use smartphones do not have the same capabilities as more advanced VR devices, and they aren’t compatible with all kinds of VR games and accessories that you could buy. That’s because mobile headsets rely on the computing power of the phone, rather than on a system designed specifically for VR. Here are a few key ways that mobile headsets come up short.

  • Processing: Mobile headsets rely on the processing power of the phone they are attached to. By contrast, advanced headsets have more powerful components that are specifically designed to handle virtual reality, resulting in superior graphics and speed.
  • Tracking: Mobile headsets often rely on the motion tracking capabilities of the smartphone, but may also have their own sensors. In either case, the tracking is not as responsive as dedicated headsets.
  • Controllers: Mobile headsets may use a Bluetooth controller that works in place of touchscreen controls on the smartphone, but these controllers do not enable their own motion tracking. A dedicated VR system, on the other hand, incorporates motion sensors in the controllers themselves, allowing for a more immersive experience.

Overall, standalone and console headsets offer a higher-quality VR experience compared to smartphones. However, mobile headsets are undeniably more affordable and portable. Now, curious entry-level consumers can afford VR without investing in an expensive setup.

What smartphones work with VR?

Mobile VR is often affordable because you can most likely use your current phone. Most modern smartphones already contain the processing power and hardware necessary to play VR videos and mobile games. Any iPhone or Android phone released in the past few years will meet or exceed these minimum capabilities for running mobile VR:

  • 1080p display or better;
  • 3 GB RAM or more;
  • 1.5 GHz or higher CPU speed;
  • Internal gyroscope and accelerometer for motion tracking.

After confirming that your phone can handle VR, you’ll need only to determine what kind of mobile headset can accommodate your device.

Choosing the right mobile VR headset

In truth, smartphone headsets are mainly being replaced by more advanced and increasingly affordable models like the Meta Quest 2, and once-popular devices like the Samsung Gear are no longer produced. If you feel ready to dive into the world of VR, a complete VR gaming setup may be worth the investment.

That said, you can purchase a usable headset for mobile with a relative handful of dollars compared to the price tag of the Quest, and there’s no harm in shopping online to see what you can find. Several companies still sell smartphone-compatible headsets. Most notably, there is Google Cardboard, a low-tech and low-cost option if you simply want to watch videos in VR on your phone.

Before purchasing, you'll want to make sure that the device can accommodate your phone. Do this by checking the product speculations and making sure your phone's dimensions, operating system and technical specifications all meet the requirements.

Additional considerations for your smartphone VR experience

If you decide to experiment with virtual reality using your smartphone, consider these additional tips:

  • VR requires a good internet connection to work smoothly. Either your home Wi-Fi or your mobile data network must have fast and stable service to deliver the best experience.
  • Remember that when using a VR headset, your vision of real-life surroundings is partially or fully blocked, so you’ll need to ensure a safe environment free of obstacles and hazards.
  • If you use mobile VR for fitness, you can also use your app-connected smart watch in conjunction to track metrics like heart rate, steps and calories.
  • Children should always be supervised for safety when viewing or gaming with VR headsets.

Although it's safe to say that smartphone headsets are not shaping the future of virtual reality, these devices remain a fun and affordable way to explore the technology using a phone you already own. If you are on the fence about gaming in virtual reality, try out a mobile headset to get a taste.

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