The first Google VR180 camera — the Lenovo Mirage — is launching on May 6, together with the Mirage Solo VR headset, a standalone Google Daydream 2.0 headset with 6DOF positional tracking, with no need for external sensors. Both are available for preorder. Here’s a detailed analysis of why they could enable VR to become mainstream.
There is now more awareness about VR than ever, thanks to movies such as Ready Player One. However, in terms of ownership of VR headsets, they are still relatively uncommon. Even the most popular VR headsets, Samsung Gear VR and Sony Playstation VR, have not become smashing successes in terms of sales.
No one knows for sure exactly why, but pundits have offered many reasons, such as not enough high quality content, or cost, or hardware requirements that are too steep, or that they are too inconvenient. In my opinion, the most important obstacle is that in order for VR to succeed, people must first come to want to use VR to capture their own photos and videos.
Most people use smartphones to take photos or videos, and view them on smartphones, not because they offer higher image quality but simply due to convenience. Therefore the burden is on 360 cameras and VR headsets to show that they are so much better that people would actually prefer to use them even if smartphones are much more convenient for shooting and for viewing.
This is where Google VR180 comes in. Let’s start with VR180 videos, which are not simply half of a 360 video. When a user views a Google VR180 on a smartphone or laptop, the video will appear as a non-360 4K video. But if the viewer views the same video on a VR headset (even Google Cardboard), the video becomes a 3D 180 video where they can look around. This is a clever way to emphasize to users the difference between conventional videos and VR videos.
Here is a sample VR180 video (watch it in a cardboard viewer or other VR headset to see it in 3D 180):
Most importantly, the video will look decent in terms of sheer image quality, unlike many consumer 360 cameras that look noticeably less detailed than conventional cameras. Here are samples from the Lenovo Mirage.
Here is a screenshot from their promo video:
The other part is of course the viewing experience. Right now, the most common way to view 360 videos in a VR headset is Google Cardboard. It’s cheap but it has several disadvantages. First, the tracking quality is not as good as it should be, often with significant ghosting and other issues, which is why it doesn’t feel immersive. Second, it’s not so convenient. You have to insert your phone (often, you’ll have to remove the phone from its case) and ensure that the phone is in the middle of the VR headset. Die hard VR fans won’t mind at all, but the challenge is to persuade average consumers.
Here’s where Mirage Solo comes in. It’s a standalone device, so you don’t have to insert your phone or connect it to a PC. Second, its tracking is much better than Google Cardboard, and it even has 6DOF positional tracking, just like the HTC Vive (reviewed here) or Oculus Rift (reviewed here). Third, and just as important, it does not need any external sensors. Instead, it uses inside-out sensors to analyze its surroundings and determine how it is moving. The end result is a VR headset with no wires — one that you can wear immediately to experience ‘real’ VR instantly.
For these reasons, Mirage Camera and Mirage Solo might be the answer for taking VR mainstream. But will they actually succeed? Here’s my analysis.
Outlook for Google VR180
I’m hopeful about Mirage Camera. The price is reasonable, and the camera is simple and easy to use for average consumers, not just in terms of its controls, but in terms of composition. I’ve shot with 3D 180 format, and to me it is much simpler to compose for it, compared to a 360 camera. In fact, you can pretty much shoot with it the same way you would with a smartphone. The missing link, however is to make it easy and convenient for consumers to view the videos they shot with Mirage Camera.
So, how is Mirage Solo? Unfortunately, I cannot yet say that I’m super optimistic about the Mirage Solo headset for at least two reasons. First is price: $399 is not cheap, and in fact is just as expensive as Oculus Rift. True, it doesn’t need any cables, so it’s much more convenient. But the second issue is the quality of the VR experience. Although it does have positional tracking, the graphics on the ads and demos I’ve seen so far seem no better than current Daydream or Gear VR games, and a world of difference from Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Moreover, its controller has much more limited tracking compared to the controllers on the Rift or Vive or even PSVR.
The one glimmer of hope about Mirage Solo is Google’s Seurat optimize technology, which can produce quality VR graphics even with smartphones, and presumably the Mirage Solo:
It works by rendering only the portion that is visible to the viewer, rather than all the polygons of the 3D model.
If Seurat can enable Mirage Solo to provide desktop-quality VR experiences, then I think it could impress consumers enough to take the dive into VR.
Lenovo Mirage Camera and Mirage Solo headset are available for preorder from Amazon, either separately or as a bundle. Lenovo Mirage Camera is $299. Lenovo Mirage Solo is $399. If you order both as a bundle, you can save $50. I did order both myself and will post a review as soon as I receive them. Meanwhile, Yi Horizon, the other Google VR180 camera for consumers, has been reportedly pushed back to October 2018 (thanks to reader Francis for the tip!).