In your pocket and good enough for most mainstream use-cases?

Much excitement today as Samsung released the much-hyped and much-leaked S9. Amongst the news headlines and soundbites, which largely centred on the low-light and slow-motion properties of the camera chip, there wasn’t much about virtual reality, but the S9 seems poised to be at least a step forward. It’s arrival is well-timed.

First generation VR headsets, like Oculus’ Rift and HTC’s Vive since 2016 in their consumer releases. They suffered from similar constraints: low-resolution displays that create a screen-door effect. Each device has the same pixel resolution (1080 x 1200 per eye), which translates to a pixel density of roughly 455 pixels per inch (the other PPI). Pixel density is important because the human eye’s fovea packs millions of colour sensors into a small area of the retina. If you want to have an immersive virtual experience that’s a good approximation of reality, a high-resolution (>600 PPI), high-framerate (90Hz) display is a key part of that.

The second generation is starting to emerge now. HTC have announced the Vive Pro, which delivers an increase in resolution (1440 x 1600 pixels per eye at 615 PPI). Early users report a noticeable improvement; the screendoor effect is reduced and pixels are barely discernable. Two eyes mean the effective resolution is 2880 x 1600, but driving a VR display (composed of two slightly separated viewpoints) at that resolution is going to take some serious processing power. While a $500 Nvidia GTX 1070 could drive a first generation headset, a second generation will probably require something like a GTX 1080ti or the soon to be announced GTX 2080. Add to a high-end desktop PC the cost of the headset (probably around $800) to the cost of a new cutting edge graphics card (again probably around $800) and PC-based VR is an expensive proposition.

The Samsung S9 takes a different approach. It’s an integrated package where the screen, and the graphics engine that drives 3D primitives at high-framerates to it, are integrated into a single package. If the S9 uses the existing Gear VR (a $100 headset mount for the phone), then it’s a cheaper way into the VR world. The screen is 2960 x 1440 (570 PPI), so I’d also expect to see a reduced screendoor effect over first generation dedicated VR headsets. It neither cheap (trailed today at $800 - why is everything $800?!) nor likely to be as good as a dedicated headset, but VR is an add-on to a product you might have in your pocket anyway. I suspect for many it’ll be good enough and this, or a competitor phone released in the next 6-12 months may be the VR tipping point. Now we’ve just got to find some time to start coding for it!

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