Samsung's first shot at virtual reality, with some help from Oculus, is off to an interesting start
Some say that virtual reality is the next frontier in gaming, and Samsung is getting in on the ground floor with its just-announced Gear VR headset. Powered by Samsung's latest big flagship device, the Galaxy Note 4, the Gear VR provides a more immersive (albeit low-resolution) experience than you typical game on a big screen TV or even a theater by strapping a screen mere inches from your eyes.
Even when they tack a name on the end like "Innovator Edition," there's no doubt at this point that Samsung's getting serious about consumer-facing virtual reality with the introduction of the Gear VR. How this gets positioned, how much it costs and how quickly the content choices expand may make or break its initial release — read along and see what Gear VR has to offer at launch.
We can't show much of what we actually saw through the Gear VR on video, but you can surely see our befuddled reactions to wearing it. Be sure to watch our full hands-on video with the Gear VR, then read our full impressions below.
Features and feel
No surprises here — the Gear VR fits on your head like it should.
There really isn't much to say here about how the Gear VR works or fits on your head that isn't clear from a few pictures of the device. It's basically just a concave piece of plastic with a couple of lenses in it that direct screen images properly into your eyes (with a full 96 degree field of view), held onto your head softly with some very soft foam and two adjustable straps.
It's adjustable to fit just about anyone, and the focus adjustment wheel on the top of the Gear VR means that you should have no trouble finding the right focus point to view things crisply, even if you normally wear glasses.
Not having an Oculus Rift to compare it to we can't say much about (relative) comfort, but after using it for several minutes swirling around looking at neat demonstrations we can't say there's much to be worried about there. The great part about the Gear VR is that there are no additional cables or connections getting in your way or tugging you in a certain direction. It's all self-contained on your melon.
That doesn't really mean that you can inconspicuously wear the Gear VR out in public or something, though — you'll still be drawing much unwanted attention to yourself with such a large headset on. We heard someone mention wearing it on an airplane. We can only hope that was a joke.
How it works, and how it looks
Virtual reality isn't the trick, but the fact that this is all happening on a phone is.
The Gear VR uses same dual-lens method — showing different images to each eye to trick your brain into seeing depth that isn't there — that's the basis for all sorts of virtual reality and 3D applications, but the difference this time is that there's a simple smartphone powering the experience. When you remove the grey plastic cover from the front of the Gear VR, you'll find a latch that accepts the Note 4 (and only the Note 4) horizontally, connecting to the USB port and latching in place securely.
Since the phone is completely covered when in the Gear VR, you then control the interface with a combination of head movements and a touchpad, which is found on the right side of the headset. That touchpad takes both swipes and taps to make selections in the interface when you're wearing it, and is also accompanied by a "back" button for quicker navigation and external volume keys.
The hand-picked demos worked well, but some questions remain unanswered.
As far as the experience of wearing Gear VR goes, it's kind of hard put our finger on whether it's a viable consumer product. Our brief time with the virtual reality headset was limited to a few hand-picked demos, as software at this point has yet to open up to everyone. Most of the current apps focused on simple navigation around spacious areas to look at different things and interact with simple elements using the touch pad — relatively basic stuff, and far from taxing the hardware as you'd expect an immersive game would eventually.
It also made it difficult for us to get a feel for how the Note 4 handles the transition from being in your pocket one moment and then clipped into the Gear VR the next, which is going to be a real pain point if this isn't handled correctly. We also don't know what the Gear VR will be capable of when third-party developers get their hands on it.
The Gear VR will be shipping with an SD card in the box loaded with content to best show off what this thing is capable of, including tailored experiences related to popular franchises like Marvel's Avengers, DreamWorks VR, Legendary's Pacific Rim, Cirque du Soleil Media and VEVO. That last one is particularly interesting, as it offers up thousands of concerts and music videos to view in a more immersive fashion.
The Note 4 can handle processing, but you're still going to see pixels on the display.
After running through some of the first games and demos, it was immediately apparent, however, that the graphical prowess of the Note 4 wasn't the major shortcoming here, but rather the display resolution. Even with a fantastic Super AMOLED display at QHD resolution at your disposal, when you place it mere inches from your face, magnify it with lenses and split it in two to give the virtual reality effect, you quickly run out of pixels. Images were still grainy compared to viewing a phone or TV at a distance, of course, and that'll be a tad disappointing if you're expecting a higher resolution. That said, if you've used any lower-resolution virtual reality you're going to be in for a treat because you have that additional perspective.
Taking into consideration that this was a limited experience, it's actually quite impressive to see the Note 4 handling all of this computing power on its own. You're getting a consumer-focused virtual reality headset — something until now kept to hardcore gamers and developers tethered to a high-end PC — but simply powered by a regular phone you'll be able to go out and buy in short order.
As for the Gear VR itself, Samsung isn't quite ready to spill the beans on pricing or availability. It's clearly being targeted at a mass audience, and Samsung has confirmed that it will be sold by both major retailers and select carriers, but is being saddled with the "Innovator Edition" tag right now. Pricing is yet to be announced, which is unfortunate considering how it may make or break this as a casual purchase that could gain widespread appeal.
If the Gear VR looks to you suspiciously like the Oculus Rift developer kits that have been out in the wild for some time, you'd be right. Aside from being white and a bit more rounded, the Gear VR looks basically like a more-refined Oculus Rift, and that's likely because Oculus is a partner with Samsung on this project (as previously rumored). The Gear VR says so right on the side — "Powered by Oculus" — and the software reiterates that when you're loading up the software on the attached Note 4.
Having the hottest name in virtual reality behind your first consumer-level device is a pretty huge deal for Samsung, but we don't exactly know at this point how deep the ties go or how fruitful they will be as the Gear VR progresses as a product. Oculus itself is still in beta testing phases of its own headsets, after all.
The future of virtual reality?
There are some distinct advantages to the route Samsung is taking with the Gear VR, primarily in the fact that it is a self-contained unit still capable of providing serious graphics power. The initial grouping of launch content is very promising, and really shows off what the hardware is capable of, even on day one. But despite its feats, the Gear VR still can't shake the fact that it's a large face-mounted computer that's hardly ready to be adopted by casual users.
As a first shot at a consumer-facing virtual reality solution, the Gear VR is off to a great start — and that's not something folks have been able to say about many virtual reality products. Whether Samsung can turn this into something that any considerable number of people will want is a different question entirely, and will hinge on a few key factors — price, content and marketing. This is just the beginning.