Why is it so hard to find good VR content for iPhone?

VR is the new must have accessory, and for the iPhone there are several VR Headset solutions available that look great.

Posted by Marco De Falco on July 20th 2016

VR is the new must have accessory, and for the iPhone there are several VR Headset solutions available that look great. You insert the phone, put it on your head and then you are off into an immersive world of your choice. VR has arrived and you scream hysterically. Or maybe that was just us.

Once into that VR, we have a choice of the stereoscopic 3D movies, some really incredible rollercoaster simulations, or what most of us are really looking for, those magnificent VR games everyone is drooling over. So, will it be one of those incredibly immersive FPS games that take shooters to a whole new level, or will you don the helmet of a professional racer and see what its really like on the race track? It's at this point, where the excitement is at fever pitch (again, maybe just us), that the problem becomes obvious. The iPhone is in the headset, you can't interact with the screen to control the game, and the VR gaming dream fades as quickly as it appeared.

There are some options though, so let's have a look at what we can do for that VR gaming experience with the iPhone:

Google Cardboard (V2)

Launched in 2014, this seemed like the perfect VR solution in those simpler times, a cardboard headset that you insert your phone into. Unfortunately, the first version of Cardboard featured a magnetic button, which was not working with the Apple famous smartphones This has been replaced in 2015 with the 2nd version, Cardboard V2, and that features a conductive style button that now works also with the iPhone.

The launch of this version 2 of Cardboard saw the launch of hundreds of VR games in the App Store, using Google's SDK for Cardboard that allowed a unique way of controlling the VR games via that conductive button. However, as great as this is, when the alternative was no VR games at all, it is a single button, and that means that games are restricted in what they can do. You only ever have one button to control the game, but think about the kind of controls you really need some VR games, it is a lot more than one. So, better than nothing, but that is not the VR experience we are looking for at all.

As an aside, if you plan on trying this out, be careful as V1 Cardboards are still out there, and they still do not work with iPhones, so be aware.

Bluetooth Controllers

This was a solution that rose suddenly, and then died just as quickly. Those mini Bluetooth controllers were fairly limited in its ability, but was sold with some VR headsets to overcome the control problem. However, after iOS 9.2 the controllers simply did not work any longer, bringing this avenue of possibility to an abrupt end. The reason for this lies in the communication protocol that bluetooth controller generally use: the HID. This protocol has been restricted by Apple fro security reasons and now, the average Bluetooth controllers will not work with your iPhone.

VR Headsets with Integrated Controls

This seems like a sensible idea, a headset that contains sensors and buttons, similar to the Gear VR, but developed to be iOS friendly for your iPhone. It does not physically exist yet though and remains an in development idea, there are some crowdfunding campaigns to produce such devices, and although on paper they look great, it is only when they become reality that we will see if this is the solution.

Miscellaneous

It's hard to put these into any specific category, the obvious gap in iPhone accessories has seen an abundance of crowdfunding campaigns to develop controllers to meet the needs of iPhone VR gamers, varying in both quality and ideas. There have been VR Gloves that track movement, likewise VR suits and even a VR seat! On the less ambitious side there have been guns for first person shooters and other solutions.

They all have issues though, most notably these devices fail to answer one very simple question: 'why should a developer build applications and content with your system of inputs in mind?' Moreover, they all cost far more than the headset you want to use them with, and while some may go down this route, for the majority this seems like the wrong direction to go to get the masses playing VR games with their iPhones.

Branded Controllers

While there seems to be little in the crowdfunded market available as a way to get a VR gaming experience out of your iPhone, surely the more mainstream offerings will have just the accessory we are all looking for right? Wrong. There are very few game controllers available now that are classed as Apple compatible, and they use the Apple provided programming library MFi to 'talk' to the iPhone and software to work. Some of the gaming brands produce such controllers, with one of the best reviewed being those from Steelseries.

However, here again you can run into issues, Not all VR games feature MFi support. So you might end up downloading your brand new game and realise you are not able to use your shiny new controller. At the moment games that are actually created with MFi compatibility are still small in number. There are some impressive options, such as Occupation, Fractal Combat X and House of Terror, End Space VR and Zombie Warfare VR. They are programmed to work specifically with that kind of controller support but still remain a minority of games. Without dedicated support, although the controller is recognized by your iPhone, it will not work in the game. So, this is still not the wide ranging VR experience we are looking for.

New Gaming Ideas

The other direction that the controller issue is being overcome is from the game creators themselves, where looking at certain points of the screen initiates a control or automatic shooting/walking/running and so on negate the need for a button press. Tilting your head to control a car steering is another popular option to get around the restrictions that lack of controls creates.

While this at least gets the games playable for people, most of these ideas do break the VR immersion for the player, and can lead to a disappointing playing experience, and for the long term is not the solution we all need.

The whole point of VR is to provide gamers with the ability to immerse themselves into a fully three-dimensional world that offers a complete experience, moving your head to look around, being able to explore as you would a real world. If those movements must become game inputs, then they must reduce that immersion and freedom by necessity. This freedom and immersion is the experience that VR is selling us, but at the moment it is not quite delivering.

The Future

So, one button, a tilt of the head, this is VR Gaming on the iPhone, and not what we really want. However, there is hope with new developments coming along, one of these being us (!) Remoria VR. We have created the Lignum Controller, specifically designed for Mobile Virtual Reality. Our goal was to develop a set of inputs at the same time immersive, low latency and easy to implement in a developer's project. We are opening the doors now for beta testers and yes, it works on iOS.