It all started with the Galaxy Note 4.
Samsung's NYC unveiling of the Galaxy Note 4 was unusual for a couple of reasons. From the half-baked introduction to the Galaxy Note Edge to awkwardly rushing Adam Levine and James Valentine on and off the stage for the ill-fated Milk Music, the presentation was just kinda odd. Towards the end of the presentation, everyone was invited to check out a unique partnership with Oculus. The Samsung Gear VR was announced as an accessory that would eventually be available for the Note 4, and it would be all about bringing high quality VR to the world.
Fast forward to this week. Samsung has shipped tens of thousands of Gear VR headsets all around the world, and a new matte black version with a removable USB-C port and several other significant changes to the headset that add up to a significantly improved experience. To really get a feel for how the Gear VR has improved over time, we're going to take a look at all three headsets side by side and appreciate the differences.
At their core, all of the Gears VR are designed to function the same way. You pop the phone in the back, look through the lenses, and interact with the touch pad on the side. The core design is a step above Google Cardboard for three reasons. First, there's extra tracking sensors in the headset that work with the phone for a smoother motion-based experience. Second, the headset's touch sensor opens the doors to different types of interaction, like swiping back and forth for action in a game. Finally, there's a USB port on each headset to run power from outside of the headset to the phone. This was less exciting in the Note 4 days with overheating problems, but with the Note 7 it not only works well for charging but Samsung also wants to see some accessories use this port for data someday.
Connecting the phone is a small part of the experience, but the change over time is significant. The Note 4's proprietary microUSB port meant nothing but the Note 4 would ever use the original Gear VR. This was fixed with the release of the Galaxy S6 and the updated Gear VR, which now supports all Samsung phones up to the Note 7.
The Samsung Gear VR was all about bringing high quality VR to the world
With the update to USB-C on the Note 7, a Gear VR with an interchangeable port was necessary and appreciated. More than that, Samsung stopped using spring-loaded switches on the latest Gear VR phone connector. This makes it a lot easier to remove and add phones, and makes swapping the port out a lot simpler.
The most significant update to the Gear VR over time has been size. The physical space where you put your eyes has grown with every generation, and with good reason. The larger opening supports more users with prescription lenses, which is a big deal on a headset where you can only slightly adjust the distance of the lenses from your eyes. That adjustment wheel, locates at the top of each Gear VR, has also seen some improvement over the years.
With each release the wheel becomes smoother and more convenient to use, without losing its position over time if you move around a bit.
That increased face hole has not meant an appreciably larger front to the Gears VR, which makes sense when you look at phone size over time. The Galaxy S7 edge is not only narrower but thinner than the Note 4, and packs a better display and lacks the overheating issues found in the aging predecessor when enjoying VR.
The only real change to the part your phone lays on in the Gear VR has been the lenses, which now support a field of view of 101-degrees instead of the original 96. You can see the different plastic patterns used over time to work with the lenses and displays that have changed over time as well.
Finally, the touchpad. Samsung has switched this around a bit over time, but has now settled on a slightly indented touch area with a little bump for the touch area.
This is way better than the current D-Pad set up for playing games, and it turns out doesn't make a huge difference when it comes to navigation for apps that are not games. We've also got a bigger touch surface on the newest version of the Gear VR, which is nice.
Samsung's efforts in improving the Gear VR are subtle, but incredibly important. The most recent version of this headset is a clear mashup of the things that have been done up this point, and all of those ideas come through as improvements. It's going to be very interesting to see what Samsung does to improve the Gear VR from this point, and rest assured we'll be the ones watching!