For all it's done to act as a gateway drug for virtual reality, smartphone-based VR has been pretty crude thus far. Even the best mobile VR experience out there — Samsung's Gear VR — involves fiddling with focus sliders before immersing yourself in a decidedly low-res world.
But that quaint, blurry experience may get a huge upgrade later this year. Reports have surfaced in recent days suggesting the Galaxy Note 6 will feature USB Type-C connectivity — and that presents some tantalizing possibilities for the next Gear VR.
Let's take a closer look.
First of all, if Samsung goes USB-C in the Note 6 then it has to release a new Gear VR headset this year. The current headset uses good old-fashioned microUSB, as opposed to the newer reversible connector. And VR is so important to Samsung that launching a new high-end phone without a compatible Gear VR is basically unthinkable.
It makes little sense to just recreate the current Gear VR with a different port and call it a day. Sure, that could happen. But in doing so, Samsung would miss a golden opportunity to take advantage of USB 3.1 — the standard that would likely accompany the new port. (We've already seen the latest USB 3.1 Gen1 spec implemented in one major Android phone, the HTC 10.)
USB Type-C in a Note + Gear combo would enable one crucial feature: Ultra HD video output.
Among the many features enabled by USB 3.1 is Ultra HD video output — sufficiently powerful USB 3.1-enabled hardware can easily push 4K video to a high-res monitor or TV. As for the phone doing the number crunching, UHD is no problem for the current crop of flagship processors either — Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 can output 4K at 60Hz, and Samsung's Exynos 8890 marketing slides also boast of 4K support.
You can probably see where we're going with this.
In building a Gear VR with USB-C connectivity — which it would have to do for a Type-C-enabled Note 6 — Samsung has the opportunity to create a new, premium VR product that relies not on the changeable, unreliable display density of whichever phone happens to be present, but new, higher-resolution integrated displays in the headset itself. The Note 6 might slot into this new Gear VR just like current models, but instead of using its own display to drive the experience Samsung could craft smaller, significantly higher-density panels around each eye. We've already seen this approach — though slightly differently executed — in LG's 360 VR.
There's one big advantage to this: Since you're not relying on a smartphone screen to drive your VR headset, you're no longer hobbled by the pixel density limits of phone screens. It's impractical to use a 800-plus pixel-per-inch display in a phone — as proved by Sony's 4K-resolution Xperia Z5 Premium, which hilariously upscales most content from 1080p. Integrated displays in the next Gear VR would mean Samsung could continue using 2K panels in its high-end phones — a resolution which actually makes sense in a handheld device — while using its considerable OLED display might to craft even more pixel-dense panels for the next Gear VR.
A resolution bump would be the most meaningful upgrade Samsung could give the Gear VR.
This makes way more sense than pushing all the way to a 4K panel in the next Note (or for the sake of argument, the one after that) just for the VR benefits. (Not least when you consider that nowhere near the full panel size is actually used by the Gear VR.)
Doing so would represent the most meaningful upgrade possible for smartphone-based VR, assuming Samsung Display is currently capable of pushing past the ~600ppi boundary we're seeing in modern phone displays.
But there are a few inevitable compromises. A higher resolution doesn't guarantee all content will automatically look better. Right now most games on the Gear VR are rendered at 1024x1024 per eye, then stretched to fit the viewport size. So content would need to be re-tooled to take advantage of ultra-dense integrated displays. And this new premium Gear VR would certainly be much more expensive than the current model. Integrated displays could easily push the cost of the headset north of $200. And the cost could make this more immersive, more detailed VR experience less accessible to casual consumers.
Regardless, Samsung has all the parts at its disposal for an amazing new mobile VR experience. And if the Note 6 does pack USB-C support, it's going to be really interesting to see how Samsung moves things forward.
What would you like to see in a next-gen Gear VR? Hit the comments and let us know!
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