Introduction, design and features
Update: Samsung has updated its Gear VR with new features for use with the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 – our preview of that is at the top of this article:
The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 brought with it a friend: an all-new Gear VR headset. For those in the know this means a few much-needed refinements, including a more comfortable fit and better viewing angles – in part thanks to the improved phone stuck to the front of it.
Samsung’s added another button to the side of the device too, meaning you can now hit it simply to head back to the main home screen when in a virtual world. This was previously (presumably) deemed to confusing when you can’t see which button you’re hitting, but it’s a really great upgrade that users have been crying out for.
The strap on the top of the device is also refined to improve comfort, as are the elements around the eyes – meaning that you’ve got a more comfortable and immersive experience, which bore out in our early tests.
Samsung states that there’s a wider field of view with the new Gear VR headset, as well as a new darker colour (to absorb more light… eh?) on the outside. This is all intended to create a more immersive experience, but without being able to try the S7 and the new Note 7 variants of the headset, it’s hard to say whether it feels that much better.
Inside the helmet there are still those edges that are out of focus – when you move your head around it sharpens up quickly, but it’s irritating there’s that kind of ‘fringing’ effect.
That said, everything does look clear and vibrant inside the new helmet, and the VR screens are becoming more refined with every iteration.
You can also use this new Gear VR headset with the older, VR-compatible, phones, but you’ll need to switch out the connector at the bottom: the Galaxy Note 7 is USB-C enabled, rather than microUSB, so you’ll need to be ready to do some unclipping if you fancy this improved experience on your Galaxy S7.
It’s too early to tell whether this is the major upgrade we need to the Gear VR to make it truly compelling – it’s a refinement rather than an overhaul. The fringing at the sides of the lenses still irk and it seemed to be harder to get this one to focus… but the fit is better and with improved hardware comes the desire from developers to code for it – which is the missing link with Gear VR still.
Original review below:
In 1896, a French short film called L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was screened to the public. As the story goes, some people were so terrified by the realism of the train coming towards them that they fled to the back of the room in fear.
Since then, nothing has quite aroused the same reaction in an audience. That is, until virtual reality. It’s an experience that can be incredible, immersive and astonishingly real, and, like the Lumière brothers’ movie, we’re still at the start of this story.
It’s been more than two years since the Oculus Rift became one of Kickstarter’s biggest success stories yet. The Rift is still a work in progress, but that hasn’t stopped other players from moving forward in this area. Samsung’s horse in the race, the Gear VR, is a big deal: the first and closest thing to a consumer-ready product to hit the market.
I say closest because this is still a beta product – as signified by its "Innovator Edition" subtitle – but one that’s been designed in partnership with Oculus VR, using the same optical technology as the Rift. Plus the headset itself is just a conduit; the Gear VR uses the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in lieu of a display of its own.
But Samsung isn’t only first to market, it’s also first to take virtual reality mobile. Ever explored the far reaches of space from the backseat of a bus? How about taking a trip to the bottom of the ocean from the comfort of your bed? Heck, take it in the bath if you want the full 4D experience (just don’t get it wet).
The headset itself is reasonably affordable at $199 (about £126, AU$228) but with a catch: you need to own a Note 4 to use it, and at upwards of £550 (US$700, about AU$900) they’re not cheap.
Portability won’t just make virtual reality easier to use, it’ll make VR accessible to everyone. The technology is already proving itself, but virtual reality’s biggest challenge is yet to come: edging out of the margins of PC gaming and into the mainstream. The question is, will Gear VR be the one to do that?
The design of Gear VR sits somewhere between Oculus Rift DK 2 and Google Cardboard. The white plastic shell is moulded into the familiar ski-goggle headset design, on the back of which is an elastic strap that fits around the sides and top of your head. Even with the Note 4 inserted it doesn’t feel too heavy.
For obvious reasons Samsung has kept the device as light as possible, and with a bit of strap adjusting the whole thing stays nicely in position through any vigorous head movements, without feeling like it’s weighing you down.
The focus adjustor on the top might need a bit of tweaking, especially if you’re a glasses wearer. Despite the impressively low latency and high resolution virtual reality is still at a point where some people will come away feeling a tad queasy, so it’s important that you’re always using Gear VR at optimum clarity.
So, how the hell do you control the Gear VR if the phone is inside it? Samsung offers two means of interaction: a touchpad and back button on the side of the headset, or an optional Android controller. Using the swipe-based touchpad is easy enough for navigating menus and interacting with some of the basic games and experiences, but as I’ll get onto later, you really need a controller to get the most out of Gear VR.
Naturally, Samsung’s headset is nothing without the screen, and you’d be hard pushed to find a smartphone better than the Note 4 right now. The 2,560 x 1,440-pixel, 5.7-inch OLED display provides a sufficiently rich image. Married with that is a Snapdragon 805 processor, together making for a respectable wires-free VR experience.
To create the optical illusion of virtual reality the Note 4 display divides into two screens that blend together again when viewed through the lenses. But while undoubtedly impressive, the limitations of the Note 4 screen are still obvious.
The resolution and latency are good but limited by a device that wasn’t primarily built for virtual reality. In particularly vibrant worlds the pixels are still visible, creating a barrier to full immersion that’s often hard to overlook. But in less colourful environments, such as Oculus Cinema, the Note 4’s super deep blacks are impressively authentic.
Once perfect – and come Oculus market launch, it should certainly be a lot better – VR will offer an experience that’s difficult to distinguish from reality. It’s so close right now, but it’s not quite there.
Features and games
I hear a lot of people say that VR will need its "killer app" in order to become mainstream. I’m not so sure about that, but VR does need to be a myriad of games and experiences, and as far as that goes, Samsung’s swelling virtual reality marketplace is a promising glimpse of what’s to come.
The UI is rather bare-bones, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’ve got the Home menu, the Library and the Store, all of which are pretty self explanatory. Your most recently used apps will show on the home screen, while the Library offers a complete list of all your downloads with the option to filter.
Jumping between menus is as simple as moving your head and tapping the touchpad, and just about everything can be done from within the headset, negating the need to take out the Note 4 for any reason until you’re done playing.
I tried a number of different experiences during my time with the Gear VR, most of which were free and many of which required the optional controller to play. Anshar Wars taps into the most primitive of our VR desires: to fly around in space and shoot aliens. Then there’s James’s Legacy: The Prologue, a beautifully designed adventure game made of colourful, cuboid worlds – think an RPG Mario Galaxy – that goes against the grain by presenting itself in third person.
But perhaps my most memorable experience with Gear VR so far has come from Shooting Showdown, a simple first person shooter that pits you against another random online player on a firing range.
Despite the fact their "body" was hidden the other side of a dividing wall for the duration of our contest, there was something rather awesome about sharing an immersive virtual space with another player. I know I said virtual reality doesn’t need a "killer app", but the first proper VR MMO is going to be incredible.
For now, most of these are bite-size mini experiences; the sorts of things you’ll keep installed for the sake of showing your friends how awesome virtual reality is, but there are only a handful that you’ll go back to yourself. However, between Samsung’s Oculus store and Milk VR service, I’m hopeful the library will swell rapidly.
The Gear VR is a comfortable and enjoyable way to access virtual reality, with a small but growing number of experiences to try out. While not perfect, the resolution and latency are at a point that it feels ‘good enough’ for market – and the fact you can take it mobile makes it even better.
The fact that the Gear VR relies entirely on the Galaxy Note 4 is a harsh limitation. While it’s not the most costly thing in the world for Note 4 owners, it becomes largely more expensive for anyone without Samsung’s phablet. And until it gets some bigger, better games, it’s difficult to justify it to the latter audience.
The biggest drawback right now is that Gear VR is limited to the Note 4, meaning it’s a product that could become outdated in just a matter of months. There are rumours that the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge will be compatible with the headset, but just imagine how great it would be if it were opened up to all Android devices. Or, more realistically, at least all Samsung devices.
Virtual reality 2.0 is still in its toddler phase, which means all of Gear VR’s tech could become outdated fast. This will be the year we’ll (probably) see the consumer edition of Oculus Rift, but moving this from the margins of the hardcore PC gamers and into the mainstream will be another challenge entirely.
That’s where Samsung comes in; open it up to other handsets and a device like this could offer the everyday person the opportunity to try VR, and that’s awesome.
Right now it feels like a box of neat gimmicks and "experiences", and it shows that virtual reality still has some way to go. But even as just a demo of what’s to come, Gear VR is a fantastic showcase for this flourishing medium. It’s hard not to be excited about, even if most non-Note 4 owners probably won’t want to buy it.