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The Marvel headset is an early attempt at a VR operating system for your phone

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Finman Technologies

You can do a lot of things in virtual reality, but so far, there's no commonly accepted VR operating system — a full interface that offers all the same options as a desktop or mobile system. On tethered headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, you can use a program like Virtual Desktop, which mirrors your monitor on a giant 360-degree screen. But Marvel, an indie VR system currently raising money on Indiegogo, may be the first time I've seen someone take a crack at a mobile operating system.

The Marvel is basically two products: a VR headset that uses a mobile phone, and software that lets Android users run windowed versions of their apps in a 360-degree environment. The headset promises a few features that elevate it above your ordinary Google Cardboard. It's supposed to have an extraordinarily wide 180-degree field of view, while the standard VR headset has something like 110 degrees. It includes its own sensors to supplement the phone's standard motion-tracking capabilities, like the Gear VR does, as well as an NFC chip. There's a reference to "enhanced eye tracking," but that appears to be referring to those sensors, not a Tobii-like eye control interface.

Marvel VR OS Headset

The software looks simple but potentially effective: it translates Android apps into a ring of windows, superimposed on what feels like a huge 360-degree screen inside the headset. If you hook up a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, you can use productivity apps in a way that's a bit like Virtual Desktop, which is why the creators are billing it as "the first VR computer" and "a virtual reality device that can replace your laptop."

If you've already replaced your laptop with an Android tablet or iPad, this might be fair. But the Marvel still looks a bit undercooked. For one thing, the videos we've seen suggest the operating system isn't much more than a window organizer. For another, there's no apparent reason it should be locked to this particular headset, instead of launching as a general VR Android app. (A spokesperson said that it needs the improved motion sensors to run, though it's not really clear why.) It costs $99, or as much as the Gear VR, during the Indiegogo campaign; after that, a press release says the price will jump to $250, making it the single most expensive phone-based headset I've seen.

More pertinently, this is a terrible time to launch a mobile VR operating system. Google is widely expected to announce its own Android VR platform next week, potentially with a Gear VR-like headset. If it does, that headset could easily come out by December, when the Marvel is supposed to ship. Even if it's more useful in concept than execution, though, it's an interesting first attempt at a VR interface, something more and more people will likely be tackling in the coming months.