Seven small but important changes come together to shape the next wave of smartphone-based VR headsets.
With all the excitement surrounding the more powerful and more interactive desktop-class VR headsets, it's easy to forget that most VR users today are mobile VR users. It's not hard to guess why, either. The barrier to entry is often an order of magnitude less if you already own a compatible smartphone, and with mobile VR there's an inherent portability that makes sharing the experiences you discover that much easier.
In many ways, Samsung has cornered the market on smartphone-based VR through their partnership with Oculus. There's nothing quite like the Samsung Gear VR right now, but that hasn't stopped either Samsung or Oculus from repeatedly enhancing their hardware and software, respectively, to raise the bar even higher when competition finally does arrive.
The latest update comes alongside the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 to ensure those with the new USB-C device are still able to use the Oculus-powered VR experience we've seen on previous Galaxy phones. In the process of updating to support this new Note, Samsung has refined the hardware in ways that make the ability to swap between USB-C and microUSB through an interchangeable port the least significant change to the headset.
One size might actually fit all
Samsung Gear VR Hardware
It's bigger, it's blacker, and it's without a doubt the most comfortable Gear VR to date. The glossy white plastic from Samsung's first Gear VR revision has been replaced with a matte black plastic — only unlike the original Gear VR the darker plastic is on the outside as well. It's a superficial external change, but it gives the headset a much more polished look. The previous generations looked almost like a toy; this new Gear VR stands out as something more mature.
This new Gear VR stands out as something more mature.
The matte black interior is the opposite of superficial. The goal here is to stop glare from the displays bouncing around and causing distortions or distractions, and to that end Samsung has succeeded. This has been a multi-step process for Samsung, which actually switched away from a matte black interior in early models to help deal with light bleed distractions. Light bleed on the original Gear VR was a design decision to help deal with air circulation and reduce lens fog. Both were largely resolved in the updated Gear VR that was given away with the Galaxy S7, but the update introduced new points of frustration.
This third version aims to reduce ventilation and light bleed concerns even further, and almost nails it. The only source of outside light when wearing this new headset comes from a slight gap between the top of the nose gap and my nose. It's something I've only noticed when the Gear VR displays are entirely off, though, which is better than what I get using an Oculus Rift in the same conditions. It's possible this could be tweaked further with a facial gasket that touches the nose bridge, but the potential for discomfort likely wouldn't be worth the tradeoff.
Not only is the inside of the headset darker, it's also noticeably wider and taller. More of your face fits inside the opening with the lenses, and that is fantastic news for glasses wearers. Whereas the original Gear VR was nearly unusable with glasses, and the first revision was usable if you were careful, this new Gear VR is downright spacious. Just about everyone will be able to easily wear eyewear inside the headset without having to worry about them being pressed up against their face or cramming them up to the lens before putting the headset on. In fact, the comfort level on the new Gear VR is second only to Sony's PlayStation VR.
Samsung has set the bar incredibly high in creating a refined experience you actually want to wear.
Samsung still relies on a pair of straps to wear the Gear VR, but the setup is a little different this year. Out of the box you set up a single strap to wrap around your head, and if you are comfortable you can leave it at that. Should you decide to add the top strap, however, a small velcro spot in the back strap makes do so simple. This is a lot more comfortable than the plastic spacer that was there before, especially when laying down with your Gear VR, and makes it feels just as secure on your head as with previous iterations of the three strap system.
Once you have the Gear VR securely attached to your head, you need to set the lens distance to match your eyes. Samsung has always made this easy with a simple scroll wheel on the top of the headset, but this year that wheel has almost no resistance to it. Such a small change would only be notable if you've used the previous two headsets, but that smooth scroll wheel makes it so much easier to dial in the perfect lens distance for your eyes. Sitting all three headsets together, the increase in polish on this simple tool exemplifies the refinement Samsung has aimed for in this revision.
One final example of Samsung's borrowing from the original design of the Gear VR to enhance the overall experience is the touchpad. The original Gear VR had a touchpad with no texture to it at all, aside from a small dip in the plastic so you knew where it was when you ran your finger across it. Samsung "fixed" this in the next Gear VR with a D-Pad groove embedded in the plastic with a circular section in the middle to act as a button for selecting things. While this was helpful for casual navigation, it became a pain when gaming.
Samsung's latest Gear VR goes back to the all-flat touch area, with a single raised line in the center to help you determine where the middle of the pad is when wearing the headset. It's a welcome return to form with a little enhancement to meet everyone halfway, and to take things forward there are now two buttons above the touchpad instead of the single back button. This makes it a little easier to jump back home, and since the two buttons feel very different as you run your fingers over them this couldn't be simpler.
For those keeping score, the last 800 words represent a remarkable amount of polish that most people won't see at first glance. Samsung applies the same level of careful attention and engineering to this new Gear VR that we've seen recently on the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy Note 7, and the difference is subtle and fantastic. Knowing there's going to be significant competition in the not-so-distant future in the form of Google Daydream, Samsung has set the bar incredibly high in creating a refined experience you actually want to wear.
Getting better all the time
Samsung Gear VR Software
Building a virtual environment is a lot more complicated than the app launcher you use on your phone. It's the first thing every user sees when jumping into VR, and has to offer more than merely icons represented in 3D space around you. It's where you adjust the headset to make sure it's comfortable, where you check to see which of your friends is online, and where many people buy apps and adjust settings. What makes this a unique space is how the creator approaches it, and whether the space is inviting or deeply technical. In a Gear VR this experience isn't a launcher but a special room where all of your favorite VR experiences live. It's warm, relaxing, and all-encompassing. It's a killer backstage room, with your apps existing on the main stage.
As expected, interacting with apps on the new Gear VR isn't any different than its predecessors. Samsung offers a slightly wider field of view with this new Gear VR — 101-degrees over the previous 96-degrees — but the difference is imperceptible in most situations. If you're using a Samsung Galaxy S7 instead of an S7 edge or Note 7, you'll notice you need to be a little more specific about where your eyes are positioned in front of the lenses. This means you'll need to adjust where the headset is on your face until things come into total focus. Other than this minor adjustment, it's the same overall experience. All of your games and apps work the same, and all the settings are in the same place.
The biggest difference in day to day user interface controls on this Gear VR is the home button. In the past you had to hold down the back button and tap on the home icon in the Oculus Menu. Now, if you want to close an app and move on to something else, pressing the home button immediately raises the prompt asking you if you want to return to Oculus Home. A small change to be sure, but one that feels a lot faster than the previous implementation.
Samsung's big design decision this year also left off the front cover that came with all of the previous Gear VR headsets. Samsung claims this is so app developers can start better taking advantage of the camera, which had already started in small ways with a handful of apps. Apps that let you take photos with active filters, or place a pretend Terminator vision in front of you are cute, but exactly as limited as they sound. Also, given the position of the camera relative to the rest of your body, it's still a bad idea to try walking around with Samsung's camera as your eyes. The Note 7 and Galaxy S7 have awesome cameras, but the 2D video positioned on the left half of your body presented as a stereoscopic image is still very disorienting.
The Gear VR puts you in a special room where all of your favorite VR experiences live. It's warm, relaxing, and all-encompassing
All told, this is the same Gear VR software we've seen slowly evolve separate from the hardware. After the last update, the software is not much more in line with what you see with an Oculus Rift, and the new navigation button doesn't really change much. Head tracking is still smoother than anything else you'll see on a smartphone right now, and the new frictionless touchpad makes playing games a little nicer. In the future it's possible we'll see some new software to take advantage of the USB-C port on the Gear VR, which Samsung says could possibly be used for accessories but currently doesn't do anything but charge the phone. It's nice to know this headset is reasonably future-proof, but first we'll need to see what exactly that means.
Until that happens, there are still a ton of things to do in the Gear VR.
Far from passive VR
Samsung Gear VR Experience
The sharp sound of polished metal grinding against a socket in the wheels under me persists through the pounding and the screams as I'm wheeled down a hallway. The nurse to my left is reassuring, trying to explain away the sounds and make it clear that everything will be alright. The look of the guy pushing me makes that difficult to believe, and as she wanders off to attend another patient he makes it clear we're going somewhere less than pleasant. The lighting in the next hallway flickers constantly, and with each flash it becomes obvious we're in a wing of the hospital built on nightmares. There's no elevator, so he carelessly pushes me along a flight of stairs until we reach the filthy surgical room at the bottom. Another nurse comes around the corner with a massive needle in her hand, and before this can get any worse I rip the headset off and stare out into the daylight, pleasantly reminded that I'm safe at home and no one is about to cut into my brain.
This new Gear VR is the golden standard by which everything else will be judged
In 2016, having a smartphone means you have more entertainment than you could possibly experience at your fingertips. Music, video, games, books, and so much more live in your pocket at all times. We consume so much through that 5-inch screen, many ask what's the benefit in adding a plastic face harness to something you can already conveniently take with you everywhere. When the Galaxy S7 launched, we said the answer was presentation. You weren't just watching a show, you were sitting in a crazy future space station watching TV. I think we got that wrong, though. VR isn't just the entertainment center that holds your virtual game console and streaming video services. It certainly can be that, but if you limit yourself to those experiences you're barely scratching the surface.
Great VR experiences are deeply emotional. Some of them are designed to scare you half to death, while others are designed to make you fully alert and ready to act. You might be tasked with escaping a room, or you might be guiding an animated bumblebee through a leaf maze. There's no one thing VR offers, but nearly everything is immersive enough that as the user you feel something you'd never experience by just touching the screen on your phone. Even 360-degree videos aren't a truly passive experience. You're meant to feel like you are there, and in many situations that illusion holds.
Samsung's latest headset improves this experience subtly. It's more comfortable to wear and an improved design makes it considerably easier to feel fully immersed in what you're doing. That immersion is the most important part of being in VR, and these little changes make a big difference when you're in the seat of a gun turret defending your ship against wave after wave of enemy vessels. It's not something you need to have with you at all times like a smartphone, but it's absolutely something you'll want nearby to enhance those relaxation times.
Good luck competing with this
Samsung Gear VR Bottom line
Samsung could have easily released the exact same Gear VR we already had with a USB-C port and Note 7 users would have been just as happy. The change had to happen, Samsung needed to support USB Type-C, and having a phone as amazing as the Note 7 without this great VR experience would have been a huge disservice to its growing VR audience.
The coolest part of this headset is the way it all comes together. None of the individual changes Samsung made are particularly impressive. They're nice to have, but are neither necessary nor a massive step forward in any significant way. Together, however, these changes take an already great VR experience and make it the most comfortable mobile VR experience by far. This new Gear VR is the golden standard by which everything else will be judged.
Should you buy it? Most likely
As cool as these little changes are, calling this headset a need if you already own a Gear VR is a stretch. If you plan to purchase a Galaxy Note 7, this is clearly what you want. If you own a Galaxy S7 or S7 edge and have not yet purchased a Gear VR, this is clearly what you want. If you have already shelled out the $100 for a last-generation Gear VR and are curious about this being a worth upgrade, you should try one before you put your money down.
Where to buy the Samsung Gear VR
You can find this updated Gear VR available for pre-order from Amazon and Best Buy. As with previous versions of this headset, you can expect the headset to also be available in carrier stores alongside the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.