In the not too distant past there was a promise that virtual reality and/or augmented reality was going to be the “next big thing.” Well both are here and there is less buzz around them than ever before? I have played around with a virtual reality headset and was less than impressed. Let me tell you what went wrong.
Lenovo Mirage Solo
I attended the HECC Tech Conference in Indianapolis this year. Every participant was given a Lenovo Mirage Solo virtual reality headset. What makes this a little intriguing is that it is completely wireless. There is no smartphone that needs to be slipped into a piece of cardboard or power/data cables that are tethered to the headset. There is also a wireless handheld controller that will let you navigate through the menus and also allow you to interact with the different apps.
At the conference, a Lenovo sales representative predicted that every school in America would have a cart of VR headsets for teachers to check out and use with their class. He did say that Lenovo recommends that the headset is used with children at least 13 years or older.
So what powers this thing? The Mirage runs Android and Google Daydream. Of course, this means you need to have a Google account and access to the Google Play store to download apps. It has a wall charger with a USB C connector to charge the device and the remote control (you need to charge them separately). There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack on the side of the headset and it includes some earbuds, though I suspect you could pair some wireless Bluetooth headphones to it.
OK – that’s the background info now let’s get into the use.
Setting it up
I must say strapping on the headset for the first time and powering it on was pretty neat. After the system actually loads you find yourself looking everywhere just to test it all out. There was a preloaded Wild Immersion app that has various videos (all shot in 360 naturally) of a wildlife nature reserve in Africa. It is pretty neat to look behind you and see animals right behind you. It’s a short experience but got me pretty jazzed up and so I jumped right into the setup.
Man, this was like jumping into a 3 foot mud puddle, slow and clumsy. Using the controller to manually type in your Google account name and password took forever oh, but before that, you needed to select and type in the WiFi password. It sounds simple, put pretend a large keyboard is 1.5–2 meters in front of you. This keyboard has very large keys. Now you have a stick and need to type all that in. It’s certainly doable, just not enjoyable or super easy. I’m not sure a solution here but this process stunk.
It is very slow and tedious. Then once in, I had to run some updates, restart the device and then I was ready to go. This (including the Wild Immersion experience took about 30 minutes.
Once logged in, you can navigate and download apps. You don’t have a normal app store, but a curated one with basically just VR ready apps at the forefront. Select an app, type in your password (like you would on your smartphone) and away you go. The first app I downloaded was a virtual roller coaster. It was free – I’m not going to lie – that’s why I picked it.
The roller coaster app was an unusual experience. It was odd because I was sitting in a kitchen chair, I wasn’t moving, I knew I wasn’t moving, but somehow my brain still experienced moments of vertigo as I crested a tall hill. It is a little surreal. It wasn’t that the rollercoaster was going fast either and I could see and predict what was coming and when. Like I said – surreal.
There are those moments of interest but overall the experience isn’t that great. First, the image was never fully in focus. I had to hold the headset to my head to minimize this effect. Most of the image as but near the top left-hand part it seemed to be always out of focus.
Perhaps I didn’t adjust it just right, I am willing to put that on me, but think for a moment of a class of twenty students and trying to get each student (or even just half of them) adequately adjusted. This sounds like a nightmare.
There is an interesting safety feature built into it. If you move too far from your original position, the screen dims (or fades to black altogether) and there is a message that you need to return to the position for your own safety. I am sure this is to keep people from roaming, tripping, falling or just inadvertently hurting themselves.
The image quality is good but feels lacking. The image is clearly framed within your vision forcing you to move your head around to see something. Try to picture yourself looking through a box. In order to see what is to your left or right, you need to actually move your head instead of just your eyes.
Though the headset is fairly comfortable after a while it gets tiring.
The actual resolution is pretty good and there is the screen door effect (where the image looks like it is being viewed behind a screen) but it seems very minimal.
App selection & afterward
There just isn’t a ton of selection out there and what is out there you feel more like a passenger and not someone who can interact. I did download a BBC app called BBC Earth. It is kind of neat but a bit buggy. You can use the remote to access information about your surroundings and you tether yourself to a seal who leads you around the ocean. It’s neat but I had trouble lassoing the seal and sometimes other trouble selecting items to get information. After a good 10 minutes in here, I found myself frustrated and wanting to leave.
There are some YouTube videos that are 360 but again, you are just along for the ride. There needs to be more. I am not exactly sure I can describe what this “more” should be I just know that what I had on my noggin was not enough.
Many of the apps I tried had minimal interaction and some felt as though it was an after thought. Remember when 3D films were all the rage. James Cameron made Avatar – a movie purpose designed and shot on special 3D cameras. Then there was a deluge of all these other films that had been “turned into” 3D films. The difference between the two were staggering and some audience members had issues with the 3D in Avatar as well.
After using it for about 45 minutes I took the headset off and I noticed an issue of my eyes focusing on objects. It was as if my right and left eyes were trying to focus differently on the same object. I cannot explain it any better than that. This effect lasted for a good 30 minutes after I had set the headset down. I don’t believe it would have impaired me from driving but it certainly bugged me.
It needs to just work & other problems
I know this is a tall order but if you want teachers and schools to go through all of this and invest their money (and time) it just needs to work. There can’t be all these slowdowns or bugs within apps. It needs to do more than just allow students to be a “passenger.”
I can see other problems with this. Students jumping into other apps, students jumping into the correct app and then go off exploring without waiting for instructions. Also, when you utilize sound (which does improve the immersion effect) forget about giving instructions at all after that point. Instructions need to be crystal clear and understood before this device is even passed out. Once it is on and the outside world is blocked out the students are on their own.
The remote is another issue. As a consumer it is great to have. It is wireless, fairly easy to use and is pretty accurate (though it can be tedious as mentioned earlier). Now you have a class set. These remotes are fairly small and I can see them getting lost. I mean how often have students “misplaced” Chromebooks or iPads and think how large those are compared to these tiny remotes.
Should you buy it
I think my tone is pretty clear here. Skip this and all virtual reality devices … for now. In the past (heck still now) you can find articles touting how VR will change the world! It may but is pretty far away. It is exciting to watch but don’t waste your time or classroom budget on these devices yet.
They are too big, still buggy, still out of focus, still not fully baked.
I was genuinely excited about the Mirage. I wanted to like it, I wanted it to bring something new to the table. It does but it is fleeting. It is very cool for a few minutes and then you realize that you are just along for the ride. This breaks that immersion a bit. It takes some of the thrill away from the experience.
I still have hopes for VR, but the reality is that it is farther from the mainstream than I initially realized and that unless it is done correctly, it’s not worth being done at all.
Keep hoping people – I know I will.