Most current virtual reality headsets fall broadly into one of two categories: high-end options (Vive, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR etc.) that connect to a console or PC, and glorified phone holders (Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard et al). AuraVisor offers a third way: the freedom of an untethered headset, but you leave your phone in your pocket -- everything is built-in to the visor. It's a fairly logical solution to the fast-growing problem of family-friendly VR. Using your phone in a headset is quick and dirty, but it comes with compromises on compatibility and comfort. Not to mention the ever-present risk of your fun being interrupted by all the other things your phone does (email, calendars and myriad other notifications). AuraVisor put VR into a single, Android-based device that could provide a Gear VR-like solution to everyone, minus the anxieties of using a phone.
The project is the brainchild of James Talbot, a British entrepreneur with a track record of off-beat solutions to regular problems. Talbot is the man behind Damson audio, which makes (among other things) the cyclist-friendly Headbones bone-conducting headphones (one of our current audio picks, incidentally). I've met James twice now, and his enthusiasm and genuine love for gadgetry is refreshing. Talbot might be new to VR, and might not have the clout of Facebook and Sony, but he's delivered on Kickstarter promises before, and has the experience in manufacturing that so many other project creators lack -- often at the backers' expense (be it in lost money, or delays).
What about AuraVisor specifically? In its simplest, it's a bit like Samsung's Gear VR, except you don't need to put a phone in it -- it's a self-contained device. You may remember GameFace labs' similar concept, but AuraVisor has a broader entertainment focus. Inside is an Android-based computer with a 5-inch display, that we're told pumps out 1080p per eye, with a 100-degree FOV (the latter, comparable to all the main competitors). The processor is a 1.8 GHz quad-core Rockchip RK3288 which has dedicated high resolution/UHD video decoders and Mali graphics chops, but is more typical in Chromebooks and tablets -- time will tell how well it works in VR. You charge the headset for an estimated 5 hours battery life, and load software onto the AuraVisor over WiFi onto the 16GB storage -- expandable with SD cards up to 64GB. You need no other kit to get going -- though you might want some headphones (which can be connected over Bluetooth or 3.5mm jack).
At its most basic, that's it. If you really do want to get your content from external sources, there's an HDMI input for that, too. As for controls -- at least on the demo unit I tried -- you interact with the menu via a simple D-pad and button on the underside of the headset, though most Kickstarter bundles will come with a Bluetooth game controller which can be used as a remote also. Price-wise, it's starting at a reasonable $202/£135 -- though the eventual MSRP will be $450/£300 when it hits retail.
Is this approach a good idea though? With Oculus and Vive, the reliance on a PC for the content may mean a tether, but you're getting full-strength VR experiences that a mobile processor can't manage. Google Cardboard is mobile and wireless, and only costs a few dollars -- but any one who's tried it will tell you it's pretty much what you'd expect if VR came free in your box of cereal.
Samsung's Gear VR is probably the most direct rival, but you have buy one of the firm's several-hundred dollar phones to take part, although the headset itself is now relatively cheap ($99), and developers profit from Oculus' influence (Gear VR's SDK offers more tools than a regular phone app). With AuraVisor it's a separate/additional purchase -- you need to buy this as well as your own phone -- but that's not without potential benefits. We already mentioned you're freed from potential interruptions from apps, but as a dedicated device, you're not running other tasks in the background, hogging vital resources. It also means you can share the VR experience, without handing over your phone, too (we know how lonely those moments can feel).
There are challenges though. With all the hardware self-contained, revisions and new models would be needed to keep up with the latest phones (given that it's boasting it can run any VR app from Google's Play Store). Similarly, software updates and security vulnerabilities will need to be regularly attended to. Then there's the matter of industrial design. What we see right now is a serviceable looking VR headset, but how comfortable it is, and what it's like to wear for longer periods of time is potentially a deal-breaker. And, of course ensuring an optimized performance, that reaches beyond what someone can already do with their phone is essential for it to make sense as a product. There's no fragmentation as there is with Android and Cardboard, but like with the conceptually-similar Ouya, the core idea might resonate with users, but it lives and dies by the app support.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting bespoke, killer content for the platform that profits from the dedicated hardware. Being able to run all the same apps as Cardboard is a basic starting point, but having a fixed-specification means developers can build apps that feel more native, without having to cater for all the variables of Android phones. This is potentially a solid advantage, but only if it's fully exploited with developer cooperation (something Talbot tells me is already underway).
I tried an early prototype, and it felt promising. The fact that we were able to do it in a London bar sort of sums the concept up. Portable entertainment is what Talbot's selling. I've tried Oculus Rift, and many of the mobile-based solutions, and predictably the AuraVisor felt somewhere in between. The UI and onboard controls make the experience feel more natural than loading something on your phone, then quickly sliding it into cardboard, but the demo apps I got to experience were of similar calibre -- this hopefully will improve with content designed for the final hardware. Latency also felt similar to Carboard, but of course, this is all on a prototype, so the usual caveats apply.
Talbot is also keen to play up the potential for education. The lack of cables an obvious advantage, but also it solves the obvious problem of children that might not have access to a smartphone -- or removing potential inequalities between children who have smartphones and those that don't. It's certainly a market that makes sense -- so much so AuraVisor will have a smaller face-plate add on to make it more comfy for kids. Now the parents just need to back it.
The Kickstarter project starts today.