Cheap HMDs Are Ruining VR


Yesterday, I went on a quest. The objective was to find an inexpensive, plastic, phone-holding HMD to show some WebVR content to a client. I needed to obtain a total of 30 headsets for an event happening next week. With the corporate credit card in hand, and a full tumbler of coffee, I set out to procure the needed items.

The HMD we were looking for needed to fulfill the following objectives:

1. Hold most current phones, including the Note 4 and iPhone 6/7 Plus (largest mainstream phones on the market).
2. Not be made of brittle, easy broken material.
3. A sturdy headstrap.
4. Lenses that provide enough zoom that the image doesn’t look square inside the headset (REALLY important).
5. Quantity. I needed 30 of them.
6. Inexpensive. Less than $30 each, prefereably.

I knew that the only way to properly choose an HMD that meets my needs would be to physically test each one myself. No amount of online shopping was going to provide me with a proper solution.

I started at Fry’s Electronics.

If you don’t know, Fry’s is like a toy store for electronic’s enthusiasts. If you can think of some random gadget or cable, you can almost guarantee that Fry’s has it. It is a massive store, with so many departments, I didn’t really know where to look to find VR stuff. I asked the first store associate I found to point me in the proper direction. I did not anticipate the response I received.

‘Well, there are some in the Appliance Department, some in the Software aisle, and a few back in the Home Audio section. We’ve got a bunch to choose from.’

Stores like Fry’s do not know where to put VR HMDs. When you have a store with so many sections, which one should contain VR? I found it interesting that they did NOT have any VR HMDs anywhere close to the computer equipment. How long before stores like this have a ‘VR section’.

I check every department at Fry’s. They had dozens of models to choose from, or at least it appeared that way. Each box was unique, with a wide variety of brand and model names. This is very deceiving though. Once I started pulling each model out of their boxes to test them with the multiple phones I brought, I noticed that most, but not all, were so similar, that only the tiniest features were different.

Model #1 – So small that it didn’t fix around my glasses. Hell, it barely fit with my glasses off.
Model #2 – Bigger, but the headstrap was so flimsy, I broke it pulling it out of the box. (Sorry, Fry’s).
Model #3 – Similar to Model #2, but with a better strap. Too bad it could barely hold a standard size phone (Galaxy S6).
Model #4 – Nice and big, with a decent strap. Phone holding mechanism was so clunky, it continuously hit the volume and power buttons on all phones.
Model #5 – Oddly shaped, but fit my face and all of the phones. Lenses had almost no curve to them, so the VR image was HORRIBLE.
Model #6 – Over $70, and had the exact same problems as Model #3. That one really confused me.

It goes on like this with over fifteen models at Fry’s. The biggest challenge was that the lenses in every one of these were so low powered that the VR effect that we have come to know and love was almost nonexistent. I realize that I should have lower expectations for cheap HMDs, but there needs to be some sort of standard that requires these things to have a minimum spec.

I went to ten other retailers, and looked at over 30 different headsets. I only found one that came even close to my expectations. When I inquired about ordering them in quantity, I was informed that this model was discontinued and unavailable. Not good.

If I, a VR expert (mostly), am having a difficult time trying to find a decent phone holder VR HMD, then what does that say about what non-experts are experiencing? Is it possible that the flood of cheap, barely passable headsets into these stores is somehow tainting the reputation of VR in the minds of the average consumer?

How many times have we heard someone say, “Oh, I tried VR on my phone with one of those holders, and just wasn’t impressed.”?

I went back to the office a defeated man. I am still on a quest to find the best cheap headset, but more importantly, I am scared about the impact these cheap, inadequate HMDs are having on the VR industry.