San Antonio — There’s been chatter for a few years about when virtual reality will go mainstream. That day may already be here or, at the very least, near.
VR was one of a few technologies to capture much of the attention at 2016’s South by Southwest. It’s growing increasingly common for personal use, with the advent of applications and hardware being built to view VR on smartphones. And while there are certainly leaders in the space, such as Magic Leap, there remains uncertainty about who exactly will become the dominant force in it.
Either way, there’s definite interest in virtual reality, especially in social media. Facebook acquired Oculus Rift for $2 billion in 2014. Companies are also attempting to broaden the appeal of virtual reality, especially extending it beyond just gaming.
Xconomy recently spoke with Andrew Trickett, the co-founder of San Antonio, TX-based virtual reality headset maker Merge VR, which is used to view virtual reality apps on smartphones. Trickett discussed what’s driving interest in the field, some of the basics of virtual reality, and the software and hardware tools Merge is developing to compete in the crowded VR landscape. This conversation has been edited for clarity and content.
Xconomy: What’s driven such an interest in virtual reality recently? Hasn’t the tech been around for a while?
Andrew Trickett: I think it’s the confluence of a couple things: It’s the smartphone industry, the hardware specs of the performance for the price. VR has always been possible but this is the first time a good enough experience has come into the price range where a household can afford it. The other major driver: You have these independent game engines, especially the dominant one in VR now, Unity. It makes it really easy to create a game. You still need to be a good coder, a good artist. But it’s pretty easy to create a new virtual reality experience with Unity.
X: VR devices can basically be split into two categories, right? The high-tech ones like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive and mobile ones like yours?
AT: With Oculus Rift, you have a high-performance and tethered solution, which has to be hardwired to a PC. So does HTC’s Vive and Playstation VR. They’re expensive and high-performance and they have to be tethered with something. With HTC and Rift, we’re talking about really high class PCs with really serious video cards. Then there’s smartphone-based VR. We call it mobile VR. We’re using the user’s smartphone as the basis for display, for head-tracking calculations, and serving up the game—every bit of it.
X: That’s what you’ve built—a headset that helps users view mobile VR apps?
AT: Our DNA is let’s bring the magic of VR to the mass market. We started with a headset. Whenever a new digital platform comes along, everyone needs the hardware to interact with. The vast majority of the world population does not have a VR headset. That’s going to be the number one opportunity for several years. We’re compatible with [Google] Cardboard. It works with Cardboard apps, and then you have some unique capabilities on our headset.
X: What’s Cardboard?
AT: What Google did is create a software platform, and hardware spec, that they call the Cardboard platform. There’s lots of headsets that meet that spec. There’s lots of Chinese junk out there. Our headset is compatible with that spec. If you have a Cardboard app, you can use that.
X: Developers can build a VR app, and if they build it according to Cardboard specs, a user can view it on their phone using your headset?
AT: It needs to be a reasonably modern phone, with sensors for doing tracking and sensor fusion, and a decent GPU and CPU. We’re careful to say the vast majority of phones sold in the last two years. A lot of models sold at the low end won’t even do VR at all.
X: Why would someone pay for your headset ($99) rather than less for one of the cheaper ones?
AT: We have a number of additional advantages that you don’t get [otherwise]. The developer can use our Merge-Cardboard extender pack software to get access to those capabilities. When you look at our headset, there are two inputs. Cardboard only calls for one single input, but we have two. They can be used independently by the developer. It allows for simultaneous uses in the virtual reality. You run and jump at same time, rather than just running. Also, you can move the lens in and out to match interpupillary distance [the distance between the center of the pupils], so you can get one converged image in the field, rather than multiple. We have other tech that, when you adjust the lenses, can detect where you set them to do dynamic image configuration. It will optimize where you set those lenses.
X: Any other ways it’s different?
AT: We’re worried about durability and hygiene, which I think are the things we’re way better at than anyone else in the industry. It’s a unibody construction made out of a high-end foam formulation. It’s flexible polyurethane. It’s impervious to … Next Page »