I spent thirty minutes last night watching what OnePlus claims is the first product launch to be made in virtual reality on my Cardboard virtual reality kit. Here are my impressions.


Background Stuff

OnePlus is a recently formed phone company that made its name selling flagship-level phones at very reasonable prices. It’s also infamous for its frustrating invite system, questionable viral marketing tactics, and a messy divorce from its software provider. OnePlus does not shy away from gimmicks in any case, so it decided to launch its second phone in virtual reality. To do so, it gave out a handful of its Cardboard VR sets, one of which I picked up after wrestling with the company’s finicky website for 45 minutes.


Presentation

Most of the product launch was done through a pre-recorded video. Unlike a typical press video, this one is spherical in nature, allowing you to look around in all directions.

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Unfortunately, most of the video was shot in OnePlus’s office with nothing particularly interesting to see. There were cute things happening in the background once in a while: workers making hand gestures at the camera, someone in a Superman costume, a huge teddy bear at a workstation, but nothing too interesting.

The video itself was long too, running for more than 30 minutes. Most of the time was spent going over mission statements, fan expectations, but not much on the phone itself. The lack of interesting content meant that I got bored fairly early on. The biggest issue of the video (at least when viewed on the official app) was that you could not skip or rewind. When the video crashed on my phone, I had to start the video over again from the beginning.

As for the production value, the video looked like a high school project. The company cofounder Carl Pei—who spoke the most in the video—sounded like he was reading off a script that he had seen for the first time during filming. Everyone else in the video also acted in a noticeably scripted fashion. Couple that with unfunny jokes and rough transitions, and you have one hell of an awkward product launch.

The biggest disappointment of the VR launch, however, was that OnePlus couldn’t make full use of the VR technology. While the spherical, omnidirectional nature of the video was novel, it didn’t do much to sell the technology as the next big thing. For example, certain VR apps allow the users to see around an object in virtual space as if they were in a museum. Instead, OnePlus decided to show off a promo clip of its new phone on a virtual wall within its VR video. I guess OnePlus and its limited marketing budget couldn’t really devote too much money developing a whole new VR app.


The Cardboard Kit

Google’s Cardboard program is a standard created to hasten VR adoption by allowing people to use their cellphones to power the headset rather than have them buy a purpose built device that costs hundreds of dollars. Google provides the basic shape and specs, which are then cut out of corrugated cardboards sheets (or other materials) by various manufacturers. They are fitted with convex lenses to simulate natural vision when viewing stereoscopic content.

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OnePlus’s set was built to Google’s latest version of the specs. It is also supposed to be slimmer than rival products. Unlike more expensive sets, however, it does not come with adjustable lenses or headstraps. The nose cutout was actually small too for me. As for the lenses, they are plastic to keep the cost and weight down. As you can imagine, a Cardboard headset can feel very flimsy, but that’s unavoidable for a particularly cheap headset.

Using the VR set could not be more simple. Open the front flap and insert a phone in the horizontal configuration with a VR app open. Close the flap and secure it with the velcro patch and hope that the phone doesn’t fly out. The lenses on the OnePlus set provided sufficient focal length for comfortable viewing, and there was enough space for me to keep my glasses on. There is also a felt button on the side that pokes the screen with a felt tip to provide input. It’s quite limited in that aspect, but the Cardboard platform is meant to be a simple, cheap VR platform, and complex input methods would undoubtedly add cost.

As you can imagine, the visual quality relies entirely on the phone. Unfortunately, I have a phone with a 720p screen. That meant that my VR experiences was blurry and full of visible pixels. With Quad HD phones being readily available these days, it’s not going to be issue for much longer.


It’s a shame that OnePlus couldn’t quite use the VR tech to its fullest potential. Will VR tech be a big thing in the future? Maybe. While I can see heavy duty VR sets from gaming companies being a hard sell due to cost, I can imagine Google’s Cardboard program making head ways. It’s a cheap way to enjoy an immersive visual experience. That said, it requires a user to have a high end phone for the full impact, and there are not that many VR apps available. Who knows? Maybe the porn industry can help. Everyone loves porn, right?