Merge isn't as big a name as Oculus, HTC, Samsung or PlayStation, but it's been one of the most successful companies in augmented and virtual reality over the past couple of years. And it all started with a purple foam headset.
Merge's VR headset has carved out a neat little place for itself in a mobile VR world dominated by Samsung's Gear VR and Google's Cardboard. It's done that for a number of reasons: the headset is extremely comfortable to wear; it's got a good selection of features, including adjustable lenses and a pop-out window for AR. And, most importantly, it's affordable and easy to use.
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It's one of the few that's stood out in a crowded field. But how has it stayed afloat? And how does the company expect to succeed in an industry that's seeing a lot of growing pains?
The mobile VR gold rush
We've seen a number of other manufacturers try to create great, affordable mobile VR headsets, but many of them have fallen by the wayside â or have stopped selling their headsets altogether. Jeremy Kenisky, Merge's VP of creative, tells Wareable it has also seen a lot of companies leave the space.
Kenisky thinks people have finally found value in certain mobile VR headsets, and have migrated toward those that have great experiences at fair prices. Those other headsets have therefore been left behind.
"You have all of the terrible, cheap $2, $3 headsets that flooded the market last year. I think people kind of grabbed those, realised they're crap and threw them away. Those [companies] slowly went out of business themselves, which I think is ultimately good for the VR market in general," he said. "Giving people bad VR experiences doesn't help anyone in the medium or long term. Maybe they made a couple bucks but all they did was destroy a lot of consumer confidence in the market."
Maybe they made a couple bucks but all they did was destroy a lot of consumer confidence in the market
How exactly do you build back consumer confidence? There's been a lot of talk near the end of 2018 that VR is dead and that interest is waning. AR, we've long been told, is the exciting future.
Merge is working on it. Part of that is creating comfortable headsets that are easy to use and that don't break the bank. The other part of that is making sure that the headset can scale to a number of people. As a hardware manufacturer, that means creating a headset that has adjustable lenses, can accommodate for people with glasses, fits a bunch of phones, has input buttons, and, of course, great content.
The content bit is the tough part, as a lot of mobile VR is passive at the moment, with a lot of the experiences just being watching 360 videos. Part of that is driven by content creators, but it's also an input problem. High-end headsets like Rift and Vive have touch controllers, while mobile headsets don't usually come with that level of immersion.
It's why Samsung introduced a remote with the last Gear VR, and why Merge also made a remote a couple of years ago, more recently making the AR Cube. Merge has also created its own app store, the Miniverse, which hosts around 40 apps and games, 10 to 12 of which are built by Merge itself. But is all of this too late?
The death of VR
There are still a number of problems in VR, from high-end headsets to mobile ones. Mobile VR isn't interactive and offers a subpar experience. High-end VR requires expensive, high-end hardware that you need to tether to.
Most high-end VR is geared toward gaming, which isn't at the same place that high-end console and PC gaming is at yet. Mobile VR, as Kenisky said, is geared toward 360 videos, which take more effort to watch than just watching a regular 2D video. Plus, VR faces what feels like a ticking clock.
Can it gain mass adoption before AR comes and sweeps us all off our feet? All of this has led to the feeling that VR isn't what it was cracked up to be, and is maybe dead tech walking. Kenisky doesn't agree, and says that there is still a future for virtual reality.
"I think a lot of people had mismanaged expectations. If you look at literally tens of millions of high-end devices have been sold and out there in the wild â that's a huge market. However inflated people's expectations were, maybe we're correcting those expectations at the moment."
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He says Merge is still forging ahead with new ideas and new markets. For instance, it's seen great success in the education space. Kenisky says education tech influencer Leslie Fisher discovered Merge and, more specifically, the AR Cube. She went to an education conference, featured it in her keynote and the Cube went viral.
"We had teachers all over just buying it up and educators finding ways to use it in the classroom," Kenisky said. "They were finding ways to use apps that were designed as entertainment games to tie it back to curriculum and learning."
So Merge is turning more of its attention to education, building software that ties VR and AR to K-12 STEM, STEAM and next-generation science standards. Merge always thought that VR and AR could do well in the education market, but it didn't imagine it would do as well as it currently is. This has led Kenisky, and Merge, to believe that VR is still in a good place.
"VR is not dead. There are millions of people doing this, there are millions of people interested in it, there are lots of studios spending millions of dollars to continue to build higher-end content. Then you have the big players like Oculus building really cool hardware like Quest. This is where the future is, for sure, we're not worried."