Virtual Reality on iOS

8th January 2019 | Programming

Over the past several years, virtual reality (VR) has finally been making some solid inroads towards being a viable commercial technology. Playstation VR seems to be one of the strongest contenders, primarily due to the ubiquitousness of the Playstation 4 and its lower system specs versus high-powered PCs which are needed to run other VR platforms (e.g. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive). The PC market (Windows, Linux, Mac) has the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive as the primary VR products. Xbox does not officially support any VR solutions, even though there are a number of headsets for that platform for varying levels of support. On Android, Google Cardboard, Google Daydream, and Samsung VR (only supported on Samsung's flagship phones) are the big names. But what about iOS?

VR on iOS

Apple took a strong step into the augmented reality (AR) field in 2017 with their introduction of the ARKit framework, which made it much simpler to add AR features to iOS apps. Unfortunately, there is no native Apple-branded VR framework (e.g. "VRKit") at this time. Without strong support from Apple to help define the VR landscape and requirements for its ecosystems, this will result in a bunch of mostly unknown bit-players introducing half-baked products in an effort to enter an emerging market.

Fortunately, the most prominent player for mobile VR is undoubtedly Google with their offerings of Google Cardboard and Google Daydream. Daydream is only available for Android at this time, but Google Cardboard (and the many Cardboard-compatible viewers by other manufacturers) work with both iOS and Android. In addition to the specifications for the construction of the headset, Google also provides a VR SDK for Android and iOS.

I experimented with the Cardboard-compatible Utopia 360° Immersive Bundle which included Bluetooth headphones and a controller, in addition to the headset. The headset by itself is useful for 360° panoramas and immersive videos. I tried a rollercoaster VR app which was interesting to watch, but it gave me motion sickness after just several minutes. The included instructions warn the user to take a 10-15 minute break every half hour of use to prevent the adverse effects of VR such as eye fatigue and motion sickness.

When paired with a controller, VR can provide a new way to reimagine older products, such as the VR adaptation of the classic arcade game XEVIOUS. However, by requiring additional accessories to properly interact with VR limits which apps can be used. The Cardboard specifications provide for a single button on the headset which allows for very limited physical engagement with the phone. For some apps, they need to be manually set up on the phone first, then the phone can be placed into the headset to begin the VR experience. These cases result in awkwardness when interacting with the device. Since a dedicated controller is not guaranteed with all VR kits, this can limit the usefulness and functionality of the current batch of apps. Even the Utopia 360° line of VR products is not consistent since some kits only provide the headset and others may provide additional accessories such as the controller or earbuds.

Without a more "official" solution (such as the Playstation VR), the experience, especially with controls, is limited and inconsistent. This does not establish a good set of guidelines of what should constitute good a VR experience.

Google kicked things off several years ago with Cardboard, but there has been little progress since then, and Apple has been noticeably absent from the VR scene so far. VR for mobile at this time is more of a fun curiosity, but it is lacking the proper dedicated full-time support from the first parties to make it more of a viable reality.