The Future at a Discount: Five Below's VR Headset

Pioneering cyberpunk author William Gibson once said, "The future is already here--it's just not evenly distributed." That quote ran through my head when I saw a virtual reality (VR) headset for sale for $5 at my local Five Below store. That's even cheaper than a Google Cardboard kit, which costs around $10.

This "VR Lesnse2 Virtual Reality Viewer" headset is nothing more than a plastic shell with a pair of adjustable lenses and elastic head straps; the user has to provide all of the necessary hardware and software. Nevertheless, I had to laugh at how frequently VR is hyped as cutting-edge technology, and yet here it is on sale for $5 in the year 2017 at a local discount store. To be fair, this isn't the first time VR has been used as a sales gimmick to move cheap and lackluster products, although at least this headset provides the option of adding the necessary technology so that some satisfying VR can actually happen.

Snide remarks about cost aside, this particular headset is perfect for someone who has a smartphone that can run some basic VR software. Users can use a spring-loaded clip to attach their smartphone to a tray that slides out from the headset's right side. The tray is large enough to accommodate phones that have screen sizes between 3.5 to 6 inches. The head straps and face padding are comfortable, and there are enough holes in the front of the headset to insert a headphone jack for those who do not have wireless headphones. There is also a smaller panel in the front that can be popped off for augmented reality (AR) programs that are VR headset-ready and use the smartphone's camera. On the other hand, this headset does not include any buttons or controls, so you'll have to find other some way to remotely manipulate your smartphone (e.g., a Bluetooth controller).

My current smartphone isn't very sophisticated, so using this headset for even the most basic VR applications is out of the question. However, my phone can play side-by-side (SBS) 3D video files, including SBS 3D videos of VR applications in action, and this headset is ideal for viewing SBS 3D videos. Even though I've previously blogged about using a Stereoscopic Owl viewer to watch SBS 3D videos on my Kindle Fire, this cheap VR headset is actually the better option. So, if my 3D HDTV ever dies on me and I can't find a replacement, I can still watch my 3D Blu-ray movies.

For non-3D content, I did find some apps that allow for the playback of 2D videos in the headset. The iPlay SBS Player includes settings for different types of 2D and 3D video files. It also includes a delay timer, so you'll have time to put your phone into the headset before the video begins. To watch 2D videos from YouTube in a VR headset, the iPlayIT app converts 2D YouTube videos into SBS 2D videos.

Of course, 2D to SBS 2D conversion does not add any depth to the video; it just makes the video ready to watch in a VR headset, with a separate video display for each eye. SBS 2D apps such as iPlay's are suited for those who would like to use their headset as a portable, multi-format movie viewer. I did watch a shaky-camera "found footage" movie as a SBS 2D video in my headset to see if it would add anything different to the experience; in other words, I wanted to see if a film shot from a first person point of view would somehow feel different when the screen is placed directly in front of my eyes. Doing this didn't change my viewing experience, but I strongly recommend that people who already get motion sickness from found footage movies should NOT watch these films through a VR headset.

I've speculated before on this blog that smartphones will play a crucial role in making VR a profitable media format, and seeing a VR headset for sale for so cheap confirms my idea. By promoting VR as a low-cost accessory to an already popular technology such as smartphones, casual consumers can explore the VR format without spending too much money. For those who become VR fans through their smartphones, they can choose to buy more advanced and dedicated VR equipment (such as Oculus Rift and Vive), but not everyone who is willing to make such a purchase can still experience VR though something they already have. If you're going to evenly distribute the future, this is probably the best way to do it.


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