Why would you bother with a browser in VR? That's a good question. And the answer is YouTube, and 360-degree video.
Much in the same way that so many of us rolled our eyes when web browsers were sideloaded on early Android Wear watches, news that Samsung was released a web browser to the Oculus Store for the Gear VR seemed a little off. You have to put your phone — which in this case has a fantastic Web browser and an amazing display — into a case that cuts the resolution by more than half to use a browser that won't ever be as easy to use as the native browser on your phone. It's the kind of thing we installed mostly to see if there were any redeeming qualities at all, hoping to find any reason for this thing to exist.
As it turns out there is one big reason for the Gear VR to have a web browser, and it's all about access to YouTube.
For what it is, Samsung Internet Beta for Gear VR isn't that bad. You get voice access for jumping to a website quickly, a virtual keyboard that works better than the super awkward keyboard Netflix gives you to log in to your account in VR, and basic browser functions are never far from the primary UI. That having been said, it's still a mobile web browser floating in a black VR bubble. Images are drawn as though you're viewing them on a less than 1080p display, because there's still a ton of blackness around the rectangle you're using the browse with. It's more than a little unlikely that you'll be reading your favorite blog or checking Facebook through this thing on purpose.
As a web browser, it's mostly pointless. As a YouTube app, however, it's not too bad.
YouTube is nowhere to be found in the Oculus Store right now, and that's not surprising. Google's been working hard to make their app play nice with Cardboard while making it so 360-degree videos are easier than ever to upload, and a standalone app for Oculus would be a significant undertaking especially if it looked anything like the Netflix or Oculus Video apps when it was finished. Oculus and Samsung need YouTube a whole lot more than Google needs Gear VR users right now, and the Samsung Internet Beta app is the best workaround for getting users the videos they want. There's a big YouTube button to the left as soon as you open the app, and anything that plays in 360 mode on the YouTube website can be enabled with a quick toggle to fill the Gear VR and put the user right in the middle of the action, free to tilt and look around the world like you would through Cardboard.
There may be other uses for a web browser on the Gear VR in the future — this is a beta after all — but right now it's only use is a stopgap for 360-degree video experiences that you can't currently get in the Oculus Store. It's a little on the clumsy side compared to a native app, but Samsung's workaround here is functional enough that the company will be able to claim users can access YouTube 360, which is going to be a big deal moving forward.
- Gear VR review
- The Best games for Samsung Gear VR
- Inside Samsung's Gear VR web browser
- Gear VR vs. Google Cardboard