Virtual reality without the geeky headsets: Lightweight VR for smartphones

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This post is produced in association with Adtile Technologies.

When most people hear the words “virtual reality,” they think of a headset like Oculus VR or Samsung Gear VR. But while headsets or goggles offer a great immersive experience, they do not scale well beyond gaming or watching movies. Let’s face it, headsets attract too much attention outside of the home. And, as Google Glass taught us, people aren’t that keen to wear computers on their heads. So where does that leave virtual reality?

Lightweight VR for everyday use

Virtual reality can exist on smartphones without the headset. You might call it lightweight VR. And it offers practical real-world advantages, says Nils Forsblom, the CEO of San Diego-based Adtile Technologies. His company is working on a VR framework that lets you enter a virtual reality world simply by looking at the screen on your phone and interact with that world through motion.

Lightweight VR works something like this. You hold the phone up and away from your face and you see a window into another world. You are also a part of that world. Adtile uses a phone’s innate sensors to calculate your precise movements so that the 3D image on your smartphone screen moves with you. Walking, turning left or right, or pointing the phone in a different direction changes the view on the phone with a minuscule amount of latency.

Real-world applications

You won’t get the full immersive experience with lightweight VR you would with a headset, but you won’t need it either. What you get instead is convenience. You can use the technology to navigate any type of complex space. Imagine the advantages to using interactive 3D to help you find your way through a confusing airport? A lightweight VR experience might guide you to your departure gate, the baggage claim, or the nearest restaurant if you happen to have a long layover.

VR can also help you explore places were you are not. If you are planning an upcoming trip to Hawaii, for example, you could use lightweight VR to explore the hotel lobby, check out your room or venture out into the pool area. VR can tell you a lot more about a place or even an object than a simple video or a high res photo can.

Lightweight VR has other, potentially even more interesting applications when you consider combining it with Apple’s iBeacon, a technology that detects how close your smartphone is to a certain location. iBeacon can send out messages to you based on your location, inviting you to explore something in VR — or even putting you on the right path, if you are trying to get somewhere important.

Not without challenges

Of course, developing even a lightweight VR for the smartphone has its challenges. You have to be able to detect movements with a high degree of accuracy and translate those into smooth motion on the screen. This requires sophisticated algorithms able to capture the scale of short, medium- and long-range motions, everything from gestures (tilting, shaking the phone) to arm length movements to how many steps you are taking and how fast in real time.

Immersive VR has a tendency to generate heat and use up battery power in a phone. But as opposed to gaming, where you are using the phone for hours at a time, lightweight VR is intended more for casual use. You are using it for a few minutes at a time to learn about an area or observe an object. Also, lightweight VR doesn’t use up nearly as much bandwidth on your phone. According to Forsblom, the HTML5-based technology he is working on is only 450 KB in file size. Eventually he plans to release the Adtile SDK to app developers who want to deliver their own lightweight VR experiences.

VR is still in its infancy. We are hearing a lot about different headsets and goggles, even cardboard ones like the one from Google, where you slip your phone into the headset. But it seems there is a potential for a type of VR we can all use everyday, without the clunky headsets—a simpler VR that simply helps us get around.


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