Franklin Lyons knows exactly where his virtual reality venture, Merge VR, sits in the emergent VR tech space. Merge VR, a gaming system for use with contemporary cell phones is aimed not at hardcore VR fans and bleeding edge tech enthusiasts, but the consumer who wants to get solid enjoyable VR experiences without breaking the bank, yet with a degree of quality that is difficult to come by in an inexpensive rig.
Merge VR is a system of a VR helmet—that is meant to house a cell phone for a display—made out of a light, durable foam with adjustable lenses and a paired Bluetooth LE motion controller that is like a miniature Wii Mote and Wii nunchaku rolled into one. Everything in Merge VR is made to be extremely durable; even the harder plastic parts have a degree of elasticity (including the controller). Perhaps the biggest shock was when Lyons picked up the headset and casually dropped it (with a cell phone in it) from hip height onto the ground, where it squashed and bounced harmlessly due to the soft foam—the same property that makes it both lighter than most headsets and easier to fit on a user.
“The gyros in the iPhone are good enough,” Lyons told me, speaking of getting accurate head tracking off of the phones. “And Samsung's are almost as good. I talked to them recently about getting the accuracy they have for Gear VR, but haven’t heard back yet.”
Samsung may not want to get back to Lyons, since he’s producing a non-proprietary version of the same tech as their own Gear VR, created with Oculus support to house Samsung Galaxy phones. But with the addition of the controller and an app store for early cell phone VR gaming apps. This is also Merge VR’s greatest asset, with the foam headset simplifying the process. Lyons told me their goal was to have as few parts as possible, and that they removed 31 parts from the set once it was properly molded.
The few moving parts are the adjustable lenses (for eye width) that also act as buttons. When you finish adjusting the lenses, they perform a touch operation on the cell phone screen that Lyons' proprietary software informs the cell phone where the eye position is, so it can adjust the visuals to match the lens' location.
Lyons is a VR advocate who sees his startup as being integral in getting VR into the hands of users for whom the higher level tech (Oculus, Project Morpheus) may be outside of their price range—since they require either a high enough spec computer or current-gen console plus the cost of the VR hardware, whereas Merge VR only requires a relatively recent smartphone. The controller is a huge aspect of this and can be placed on the side of the headset for more accurate head-tracking if not used directly in the game.
So far the games produced have a casual, retro Nintendo 64 style, but still have a high degree of immersive interactivity. The Mario 64-like VR platformer Lucky's Tale came up in conversation; Lyons hopes that Playful Corp. will release the game in a phone version since it would be perfect for his platform.
Lyons plans for his product to sit somewhere between the larger companies (Oculus, Valve, Sony, Samsung) and the DIY world of Google Cardboard, and sees a world where the high-end proprietary VR experiences and the low-end cell phone VR experiences will eventually meet in the middle. With a curated app store and the durable headset and controller, Merge VR is offering a virtual-reality experience that is designed to be hardy, portable, and shared. Lyons says the price is likely to be $129 when it launches next year (that's $70 less than their Gear VR competition) and it looks like an excellent scalable solution for phone-based VR gaming.