It's an incredibly exciting time for virtual reality. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are catering to the enthusiast segment, and for those looking to experience what the medium has to offer on their smartphones, there's the Gear VR, Homido V2, and the budget Google Cardboard.
And now Xiaomi is getting into the fray with its first VR viewer, the Mi VR Play. Like all Xiaomi products, the Mi VR Play is designed to disrupt the segment it is targeting by lowering the barrier to entry for customers looking to try out the platform. The headset costs just $15, the same price as Cardboard. And like Cardboard, the VR Play accommodates any phone with a screen size between 4.7 inches and 5.7 inches.
The shell of the Mi VR Play is made out of Lycra, which minimizes weight and makes it more comfortable to wear for a prolonged duration. It weighs 209g, which is less than the plastic-based Gear VR's 345g. There's a textured button at the top for navigation, and the headset features anti-reflective aspheric lenses. You slot in your phone at the front by undoing the two-way zipper, and there's plenty of foam padding that holds the phone in place inside the headset.
The inside of the headset (the part where you stick your face in) is roomy, and it didn't pose any problems for my admittedly large head. You can use the headset while wearing glasses, but it'll be a tight fit. The viewer comes with a strap that wraps around your head, and a top strap that holds the headset in place and ensures that it doesn't wobble when you move your head around.
Xiaomi will introduce customized variants of the VR Play in denim, floral, leopard, camouflage, and user-generated designs at a later date, but for now, the company is selling the default black variant of the headset. Right now, Samsung has the mobile VR segment cornered, and while Xiaomi isn't competing in the same category, it is making smartphone-based VR accessible to more customers, especially in emerging markets.
As the headset is designed for a Chinese audience, the Mi VR Play comes with a dedicated app that includes a selection of 360-degree videos from YouKu, China's equivalent of YouTube, Conde Nast Traveller, and others. Xiaomi is investing significant resources into expanding its digital content library, which will see the addition of more VR content. Xiaomi is also going to bring VR integration into MIUI shortly, which will lead to a better experience when using the headset with the company's phones.
The VR Play box contains a QR code that lets you download the app, but if you're like me and are interested in using the headset outside of China, you can just download the Google Cardboard appand be on your way.
All apps and games designed for Google Cardboard work just fine on the Mi VR Play. I tried out the viewer with Xiaomi's Mi 5 and Redmi Note 3, and the overall experience was identical on both phones.
The Mi VR Play is not as polished as the Gear VR, but at one-fifth the cost, it doesn't have to be. Essentially, the headset is a much more robust implementation of Cardboard. It is aimed at getting customers interested in mobile VR, and by pricing it for just $15, it will succeed in doing just that. While Lenovo's Ant VR viewer also sells for roughly the same price, it isn't anywhere near as good.
If you're interested in getting your hands on the Mi VR Play right now, you can do so from third-party sites like GearBest for $16.