Source: Microsoft.

Technology investors worship any industry that smacks of growth -- oftentimes to an investor's detriment. And right now, no space offers as tantalizing an opportunity as virtual reality.

Among the global tech cognoscenti, Facebook (META -0.49%), Microsoft (MSFT 1.08%), Alphabet, and Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) are all fast at work developing their own products and strategies to conquer this looming mass market. Most notably, Facebook and Microsoft's widely discussed VR headsets have captivated the media and public as they inch toward the market.

However, in thinking about the future of mass-market VR, it occurred to me that, rather than Facebook and Microsoft, the future of widespread VR probably lies with the smartphone OEMs such as Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Samsung. And I think that's true for a few key reasons.

Source: Samsung.

Apple prepares to join Samsung's VR efforts
Though South Korean electronics power Samsung has already waded into the VR field with its Gear VR headset, Apple's intent to join Samsung in shaping, and possibly controlling, the future of VR only makes sense. A number of recent signs from the company signal Apple's VR ambitions as a virtual lock.

Earlier this month, a report broken by the Financial Times, which Apple subsequently confirmed, said the tech giant has hired leading VR/AR researcher Doug Bowman, whose work leading Virginia Tech's Center for Human-Computer Interaction has won a number of prominent scientific awards and grants over the years. Apple declined to comment on the hiring, but it isn't the company's first investment or hiring in the space that we know of. Last year, Apple purchased VR specialist Metaio for an undisclosed amount, a clear sign of interest amid other acquisitions that might also focus on the space. Furthermore, Apple's management has now publicly expressed interest in VR.

On Apple's recent conference call, an analyst asked CEO Tim Cook his thoughts on VR's mass-market appeal. Cook responded:

In terms of virtual reality, no, I don't think it's a niche. I think it can be ... it's really cool and has some interesting applications.

That falls well short of a resounding endorsement. Still, considering what it will take to make VR a widely used technology, integrating the technology into smartphones such as Apple's iPhones and Samsung's Galaxy handsets seems a far more achievable distribution model than relying on a dedicated headset from Facebook's Oculus and Microsoft.

Source: Facebook.

Handsets, not headgear
Certain circumstances, such as video conferencing or gaming, could benefit from a more immersive experience than what's available today. Investors trying to determine the winners and losers for VR should therefore focus on the companies best positioned to support the hardware and software ecosystem. I'm going to focus largely on the likely hardware winners.

Much of the media attention on the hardware side has focused on Facebook and Microsoft, since they have two of the most visible working prototypes. However, both systems have drawbacks in terms of cost and utility. Between the device itself and a computer with powerful enough graphics processing to support it, Facebook's Oculus Rift carries a total cost of about $1,600. Microsoft's Hololens operates with minimal computer support, but I've tried the device, and I can say the graphics processing still leaves plenty to be desired. Especially with a price tag of $3,000 for the developer kit, the device is too pricey for mass-market adoption. That's where high-end smartphone makers such as Apple and Samsung have an opportunity.

Rather than following the dedicated headgear model, a more likely path to widespread adoption exists by integrating the necessary sensors and graphics processing horsepower into smartphones, adding yet another figurative blade to our modern technological equivalent to the Swiss army knife. We've learned firsthand how difficult it can be to convince consumers to pay-up for Apple's and Samsung's high-end smartphones. It's this sticker shock that led to the carrier subsidies or installment plans used in many markets across the world. The embedded lesson is that consumers can balk at spending hundreds of dollars for even the most useful digital tools, which if anything, strengthens the case that mass market VR will be distributed through handsets and not dedicated headgear.

To be sure, plenty of hardware innovation will need to occur to make this path viable for smartphone OEMs, but the same is true for the headsets currently available from Facebook's Oculus and Microsoft. So while virtual reality will surely garner more attention in the years to come, investors would do well to understand that VR distribution is likely to differ dramatically from its early stages today.