I’ve been dreaming about virtual reality for years. So long, in fact, that I totally forgot about it. I used to dream of strapping on the headset and disappearing into a virtual world of dinosaurs and roller coasters. Unfortunately, early attempts at virtual reality (VR) were always expensive and clunky. Even the king of VR these days, Oculus Rift, is still tethered to a computer in order to use it. The idea of VR anywhere seemed like a dream until this past year when Samsung got into the game.
Samsung released the Gear VR for the Note 4 in December 2014. Samsung built the hardware and Oculus providing the software support. It was seen as a novelty, mainly because the Galaxy Note series has never been one of Samsung’s mass market devices. It’s a top seller, for sure, but it’s nothing when compared to the Galaxy S line of smartphones. The Gear VR did something entirely new though. It took away the tether. The hardware of the googles used the smartphone as the screen and the operating system. VR was officially “anywhere” you wanted to use it!
Then in April Samsung made another strange move. They released another Gear VR. This one was tailored for the popular Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. Along with supporting the new smartphone, the updated Gear VR resolved several issues that early adopters complained about. The focus dial has a wider range, the head straps are easier to adjust and wear for extended periods, and the overall device is lighter. Shortly after the product’s release the next major step forward occurred when the Gear VR launched a Storefront, partnering with Oculus itself. Much like when the iPhone finally got an App Store, the Gear VR is now prime for developers to actually make money with the device! So it is only the beginning. I’ve had the Gear VR for just over a week. I’ve strapped it on every head I’ve encountered over that period, and I’ve been through every feature myself. These are my first impressions.
First off the headset of the Gear VR is solid. It finds that nice balance between being light but not feeling cheap. When I put it on someones head I set the straps at their widest and then assist tightening the two straps on the side and the one over the head. It’s all velcro, and super simple. Assistance isn’t really needed, but I’m providing a service here! : )
The Gear VR has a physical “back button”, which is mainly used when you want out of a game and need a “panic button” of sorts. There are also physical volume buttons on the front of the device. The Gear VR doesn’t provide it’s own sound output, it’s just your phone. But you can plug in headphones and control the volume with those physical buttons, which is pretty sweet. The rest of the navigation is done via a trackpad. Think of a tiny laptop mousepad. Swipe up/down and left/right to move through your options. Give the trackpad a tap to select. This feature is placed on the right hand side of the Gear VR and is very easy to use.
The last physical feature of the Gear VR is a focus scroll, located at the center of the headset. My understanding is they have improved the range of focus to allow people who normally use glasses to be able to use the Gear VR without them! I have tested this with several people, including myself, and the visually challenged are no longer out of the game!
Overall, the hardware is very good. The range of vision is certainly somewhat limited being you are, in fact, looking at a 5.1 inch smartphone screen. The dreaded “screen door effect” is present. This basically means you feel like you are looking through something into another world, but this feels more like a feature when you do diving games (the Gear VR is your scuba mask!) At $200 the hardware justifies the price. But what exactly does the Gear VR actually do? Here we go.
It Offers Experiences
The purpose of any virtual reality device is to offer a window into a new world. An opportunity to stand in a city on the other side of the planet. To swim with dolphins and sharks. Heck, to stare face to face into the eyes of a dinosaur! The Gear VR offers all of these experiences, and more. Through Oculus 360 photos, you can stand in London, Paris, or a wide variety of locations around the globe. It pretty spectacular to stand in the middle of Tower Bridge in London, as it literally “towers” over your head!
The device offers diving options, dinosaurs, 360 videos where you fly over New York City and Venice. One of the coolest features I’ve encountered is “Battle for Avengers Tower” which is a 3D experience placing the viewer smack dab in the middle of a massive Avengers fight! It’s pretty surreal to see Thor’s hammer spinning directly in front of your face.
The last “experience” I’ll mention is definitely something worth checking out. It’s the Oculus Cinema. The cinema is just that, a movie theater where you can watch any MP4 video file you have stored on your phone. Theater options include a small home theater (with 100 inch screen), a massive movie theater with a few hundred empty chairs around you, the “Ant Theater” which displays your videos on a discarded iPhone lying on it’s side under a mushroom, and finally “Moon Theater” where you are watching on a screen mounted on the moon. It’s a pretty cool way to watch videos, and definitely an experience not to miss with the Gear VR.
It Offers Games
I have not taken a deep dive into gaming, but the few games I have played have been very fun. The first game I played was called “Rocket Toss”. This is a ring toss game, but your goal is to put your ring around a rocket, which will blast off and explode above your head when you succeed. The game is played in 3D, which is very cool. You simply aim with your head and toss by flicking the touchpad on the right side of the headset. It is very addictive!
Another fun game that you can do without a physical controller quite easily is “Temple Run”. The game dynamics are exactly the same as the popular smartphone application, but now you are IN THE WORLD. You can look over your shoulder and see the monster bearing down on you. This was the first game that really did a number on my balance. You are racing up and down hills, using the trackpad mechanics to turn left and right, and to jump or duck. It’s a great way to experience the wonder of VR gaming. But when you add a Bluetooth controller, things get even more interesting.
I got my Bluetooth controller for about $20 online. I started with “Temple Run” and the gameplay was much easier now that I had physical button to jump/duck, and a thumbpad to turn. I lasted much longer in the game with the controller. I also purchased a racing game called “VR Kart”. This is very “MarioKart” but not nearly as fast. Still it’s in 3D, so you can literally look down at your hands in the VR and see your fingers gripping the steering wheel! That’s pretty cool. Finally I played a game that is heavily promoted in the store, called “HeroBound”. Think “Legend of Zelda” or “Fable”. Instead of first person view though, you are hovering over the game, controlling the hero through battles and world exploration. I didn’t play it much, but what I saw was very impressive. And it will only get better with enhanced graphics. So gaming was a good experience on the Gear VR, but the greatest thing about this device is that the target audience is vast.
It Offers Something For Everyone
There are several nature videos and experiences from swimming with dolphins (though they are CGI versus real animals) and being in a shark cage while a Great White stalks you (again, CGI). There are many applications that offer a wide variety of things that will interest lots of people. There is a helicopter ride, but the chopper is doing barrel rolls. I don’t ever want to do that for real myself, but it was a great thing to experience from the Virtual passenger seat. Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary show had a 360 camera set up during the taping of “Celebrity Jeopardy”. So you can be a “fly on the wall” watching the full video show, but now you can look around the studio and see the audience (there are movie stars in there if you look close enough). That’s definitely a cool experience. I’ve yet to a find a person who didn’t find the technology fun to check out. Not everyone wants to rush out and buy one, but it’s hard to deny that the experience of virtual reality is pretty amazing.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The Gear VR is an amazing step forward for Virtual Reality. It’s making this fledgling technology mobile, and it simply has to do that to really catch on with average consumers. So many people are ditching desktops and even laptop computers in favor of tablets, that an emerging technology can’t be tied to an older hardware system. And the Gear VR is proving that such technology can be “unplugged”. There’s still some work to do (I’m noticing some issues with the phone heating up quickly), but this device is sold as a “innovator version” which means it’s meant for developers and early adopter tech geeks like me.
If you know someone with one of these, try and get some time with it. Check out the different experiences, and wonder at how a tiny little smartphone is running such complicated software. It’s a wonder. And within a year or so, it’ll finally be ready for everyone. Who knows what the future might bring!!