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VR 101: Intro to Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs)

What brands need to know about virtual reality devices

To understand virtual reality (VR) as a brand marketer, you need to know the basics about the technology and devices. With VR, this means head-mounted displays (HMDs) -- the official term for these devices -- though sometimes these are referred to as VR goggles or VR glasses.
There are several VR HMDs available or soon-to-be available, and while our list isn't comprehensive of all the options, it outlines the major players.  There a currently two different types of HMDs on which to view VR content: mobile VR and high-fidelity VR (also known as immersive VR). 
Mobile VR includes devices that utilize a smartphone to view VR experiences. The two most popular HMDs for mobile VR are the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard.
Image Credit: Samsung and Google
The Samsung Gear VR is designed and powered by Oculus and considered the higher-end mobile VR HMD because of the internal sensors that track head movement more accurately than any other mobile option. The limitation of the Gear VR is that it requires use of a Samsung smartphone – Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, or Galaxy Note 5.
Google Cardboard, created by Google, touts itself as the simple and affordable way to make VR accessible to everyone. Though considered to be at the lower end of the virtual reality spectrum, its advantage is that it works with any smartphone and is slightly cheaper at around $20 USD versus the Gear VR, which now retails for about $99 USD. While mobile VR lacks some of the high-tech capabilities of the high-fidelity HMDs, mobile VR is important to the industry for three reasons: 
  1. The mobile VR HMDs are already available on the market while consumer high-fidelity HMDs don't launch until 2016
  2. Mobile VR HMDs are the most affordable option. None of the their high-fidelity counterparts will be able to beat the price for the mobile VR options since the technology is better. 
  3. They will drive mass adoption of high-fidelity VR. With an estimated 2.6 billion smartphone users worldwide, consumers can get a taste of virtual reality with mobile VR, which has been described as the VR gateway drug. Once consumers experience the immersive technology for themselves, they will almost certainly be more willing to purchase high-fidelity VR HMDs.
High-fidelity VR includes computer-enabled HMDs and console-enabled HMDs. Undoubtedly, these HMDs are the higher-end devices. Although there aren't any consumer versions on the market yet, they are expected to launch at various times beginning in 2016.
The most popular and well-known is probably the Oculus Rift, which made headlines when Facebook purchased the company for $2 billion USD Relying on the use of a high-end computer, the Oculus Rift plugs into your computer's DVI and USB ports and tracks your head movements to provide 3D imagery to its stereo screens.
Another highly anticipated computer-enabled HMD is the HTC Vive. Though the quality is reportedly similar to the Oculus, the Vive is regarded among industry insiders and gamers as the best high-fidelity HMD. In addition to its 70 sensors and 360 degree head-tracking, the Vive offers a 90Hz refresh rate which helps reduce latency. Plus, HTC's partnership with Valve means that content will be available to Steam's large community. 
The final high-fidelity HMD receiving much buzz during last week's VRX conference is the Sony PlayStation VR. Code-named Project Morpheus, the PlayStation VR is a console-enabled HMD. Despite not receiving as much publicity as the Rift or the Vive, it has a competitive advantage in VR because it will instantly work with PS4 consoles and does not require a high-end computer. Given that there are around 30 million PS4s in market now and potentially up to 40 million by the time Playstation VR ships, Sony's move into VR is important to the entire VR industry. 
Of course, there are other HMDs expected to become available over the next year, and time will tell which ones live up to their hype. They each have their own tech specs and optional controllers, and cost is certainly a big factor that will affect adoption. As brand marketers, understanding the technologies, their capabilities, and their inherent audiences is critical to developing meaningful content that promotes not only the brand but also the industry as a whole.
To read more about developing VR content that sticks, check out our article Content is King.
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