Innovation

The pros and cons of low-cost virtual reality headsets

For professionals and companies looking at taking their brands to VR, there's much to consider when selecting the right headset.

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Image: James Martin/CNET

There is no dearth of virtual reality headsets. While Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR might be the big kids on the playground, there are countless others running around, vying for attention.

As brands and businesses look at ways to dive into virtual reality for practical purposes, they have a spectrum to consider, from headsets that cost hundred of dollars, to headsets you could technically cobble together from a old pizza box, a pair of lenses, some velcro, and your smartphone.

Cheap can be appealing, but it's important to take into consideration what less expensive headsets have to offer, and how they factor into the specific uses your brand might be interested in.

"While they have relatively the same function, the cheaper alternatives are a little more limited, whether it's in terms of quality or features that are included on the headset rather than a smartphone," said ABI Research analyst Eric Abbruzzese, "A company would have to judge if it's the right kind of introduction they want make into the VR space,"

To start, one of the main differences between something like Google Cardboard and something like Samsung Gear VR or Oculus Rift is the tracking sensor, said Jason Latta, director of emerging technologies at Louisville, Kentucky-based marketing agency Power Creative.

Though the Samsung Gear VR may look like a plastic case that you pop your phone into, the phone receives a boost from the sensor — a boost that has a significant impact on the quality of the experience.

"That tracking is what makes that immersion really happen and makes it a comfortable experience," Latta said. It's about how quickly that sensor updates and how good it is at tracking your location without drift over time.

He said that Cardboard can be fine for a few minutes, a quick 'Hey, take a look at this," but after a while, the tracking starts to drift, and the experience can become less comfortable for the user. It can lead to discomfort and disorientation and their eyes and brain try to figure out what's happening.

SEE: 10 virtual reality headsets for less than $100

But for businesses, something like Google Cardboard may be all they need, depending on the setting — like a quick client meeting.

It's also important to consider your audience. Latta said if you're talking to a hackspace or some community where members have some knowledge and experience with virtual reality, then Cardboard might be a fine option — they have context.

The flip side is that many people have not experienced VR, so if you're dealing with a prospective client who doesn't have any background in it, you're going to be their introduction.

If you're making a pitch, you really need to be using a Gear VR to sell the experience, Latta said.

"It's more professional-looking, the tracking is so much smoother, plus the OLED screen of the Note 4 is so much better than even the DK2 kit [from Oculus]," Latta said.

Similarly, Abbruzzese said if you're out for a slicker presentation, that means a nicer headset.

"I'd want a little more polish in my presentation," Latta said.

Another consideration is the tech you have on hand. Even if you decide to spring for a Samsung Gear VR, it won't do you any good without a Samsung Galaxy Note 4... which actually costs up to $500 more than the Gear, depending on carriers and plans.

Craig Dalton is the CEO of DODOcase, a company that makes various tech accessories, including Google Cardboard. They're one of the manufacturers listed on the Google Cardboard website.

Dalton said they talked to a lot of brands to see what issues they could address through the creation of a pop-up viewer. For example, as bigger agencies and brands started to get interested in VR, they ran into the problem of investing a lot of money into a VR experience, but not having an easy way to distribute it. They'd have to take their handful of Oculus headsets around to events.

"What we saw when we came onto the field is that all of a sudden, you can be demoing this to thousands of people in a day rather hundreds," Dalton said.

The also wanted the set up time to be fairly low — Dalton said it takes about 30 seconds to put together a view, which is handy in the field.

But beyond ease of use and portability, DODOcase has also tapped into another use for Cardboard for brands, and it's straight-up branding.

Business can order customized viewers with their logos on them, for example. It's another way, Dalton said, to associate a positive or interesting experience with a certain brand.

As Abbruzzese said, that's basically what Google did when it introduced Cardboard at I/O last year, they handed it out the audience and used it like an advertising tactic.

Some DODOcase users, particularly agencies, have used branded headsets to send out holiday cards that also promote the fact they're getting into VR. Media or entertainment clients are using them as invitations to technology events. DODOcase is also working with Autodesk and Eon Interactive.

"Autodesk, some of their 3D modeling software will output directly into VR, so they're using our viewer to to allow architects and machine designers to view and visualize their products in a virtual space," Dalton said.

Case study: Savannah College of Art and Design

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Image: SCAD

At the end of February, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) announced the launch of a virtual reality initiative which will put 10,000 custom-designed cardboard headsets into the hands of prospective students.

They partnered with YouVisit, and in just 30 days, put together tours of SCAD's four campuses in Savannah, Georgia; Atlanta, Georgia; Lacoste, France; and Hong Kong, China.

Recipients put together the viewer, and pull up the tours on their smartphones through the YouVisit site.

So, they can check out SCAD's sleep pods, the view from the south of France, or the flower market in Hong Kong.

SCAD had wanted to do something with VR. They were looking to how long it could take, how deep they wanted to get into it, and what the opportunities were, said SCAD's VP of Information and Technology Brad Grant.

"One day it all clicked together. We had the headsets we could produce for under $10, and we had the content together with YouVisit," he said.

They distributed 4,800 to prospective students right away. They've used them at events, sent about 1,000 to educators around the United States "to help people see and experience our facilities," he said.

SCAD has Oculus Rift headsets, as well as Samsung Gear VR headsets. Initially, they were thinking of designing VR tours using them, and equip representatives and some of their facilities with them. Though, in a sense that would require people coming to them, or to an event where SCAD reps happen to be.

"The whole thing unlocked when we got into Cardboard and realized how broad the rollout would be. We were able to send these things out, and how inclusive it could be, internationally," Grant said. "I can reach people that I never could have before, this way."

And aside from that, the headsets are branded with #SCADVR and they encourage recipients to draw on the headsets. Using a hashtag helps SCAD monitor, to an extent, what people are saying about the experience.

"We wanted to make it a social experience so we could get some feedback so we could understand the users' experience and tweak our product offering, and the types of videos and content we're releasing," Grant said.

The future of cheap VR

Abbruzzese said he thinks there will always be a demand for lower cost VR headsets and there will probably continue to be many variations to come.

What he sees has not having much shelf life, though, is application-specific devices, like Mattel's new VR headset.

"I think that is promising in the current market, but say 5 years down the line when the technology is cheaper and more advanced... a product like Mattel's or any kind of application specific thing like that might be seen as too limited gong down the line when more full-featured devices are cheaper," he said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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