For years, phone manufacturers have tried to outdo each other with ever-bigger screens and cameras that captured more megapixels than the competition. But as many of the world’s biggest phone makers congregate for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week to introduce their latest models, some are starting to replace these kinds of specs with a new sales pitch — and it’s all about virtual reality.
Consider Samsung, for example. The world’s biggest manufacturer of Android-based smartphones introduced two new models in Barcelona this Sunday, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. Both are, by the company’s own admission, improvements on last year’s models, not radical departures. Form factor and screen size are the same, and key features have been enhanced, not completely replaced with newer and flashier versions.
Instead, Samsung is hoping that you’ll buy the phone, at least in part, as a first foray into virtual reality. The company is driving home this point by including a free Gear VR headset with pre-orders of the S7 or S7 Edge, and Samsung partner Oculus is throwing in $50 of free content for good measure.
Samsung also introduced a second VR device in Barcelona this week: The Gear 360 camera is a consumer-level camera to record spherical 360-degree videos and photos in close to 4K resolution. Videos can be wirelessly transferred to one of Samsung’s new flagship phones, where they’re being stitched together in a matter of minutes.
Samsung isn’t the only phone company betting big on VR. In Barcelona this week, LG introduced its very own headset, an effort to fill a gap between cheaper mobile VR headsets and the expensive stationary headsets made by Oculus and HTC. The LG 360 VR headset comes with its own integrated screen, so you won’t have to use your phone as a display, as is the case with the Gear VR or Google Cardboard-based headsets.
But the LG 360 also doesn’t need to be plugged into a PC. Instead, it’s being powered by LG’s newly introduced G5 smartphone. It’s still early days for LG’s 360 VR — the company hasn’t announced a price or release date yet, and given only very limited demonstrations in Barcelona, but it’s clear that the company doesn’t want to leave mobile VR to its arch-enemy Samsung. Case in point: LG released its own 360-degree video camera this week as well. The LG 360 Cam also works best with the new G5 phone.
Even some of the smaller mobile phone makers are banking on VR to get the word on their new phones out. Alcatel OneTouch has literally turned the packaging of its new Idol 4 S phone into a VR viewer. The plastic box that the phone is being sold in comes with integrated lenses, and doubles as a Google Cardboard-compatible viewer that can be used to explore Android-based VR apps.
Granted, all of this doesn’t mean that features don’t matter at all anymore to manufacturers, or consumers, for that matter. Phone makers will still claim that their specific model takes the best photos, has the best-looking screen or the longest-lasting battery.
But VR is has become one of the flashiest sales pitches, for a reason: Headsets like the Gear VR use phones in a completely unexpected manner, and turn the device into something that it wasn’t before — a source of immersion that lets you literally forget that you have a phone strapped to your forehead, if only for a few minutes. And since the high-end headsets are going to give many consumers a sticker shock this year, we are likely going to see phone makers putting even more of an emphasis on the VR capabilities of their devices in the coming months.