Review: Samsung Gear VR
In the space of three and a half years, virtual reality has matured from a long-dead relic of ’90s futurism to a platform that’s received billions of dollars of funding and attracted the best and brightest minds in the tech world. Three and a half years since John Carmack surprised journalists and developers at the E3 gaming expo with a duct-taped monstrosity that would eventually become the Oculus Rift. Three and a half years since Palmer Luckey, the kid who had built it, was at home thinking up the Kickstarter campaign that would jumpstart everything. And through those three and a half years, there hasn’t been a single consumer-grade VR product available in stores.
Samsung Gear VR
An honest-to-goodness VR headset for $100. Works with current-generation Samsung Galaxy phones: Galaxy Note 5, S6 Edge+, S6, and S6 Edge. Tons of content; finding something cool to watch, play, or do isn’t a problem. Onboard sensors track movement and deliver very low latency. Samsung’s screen tech does wonders for viewability. Comfy to wear for hours on end.
Battery drain and overheating are still problems. While an improvement over developer versions, could still use some work. Requires a Samsung phone, so iOS and Windows users are out of luck. Don’t have a Galaxy phone? Add a few hundred dollars to the price.
That ends today, with the release of Samsung’s Gear VR, a mobile headset that the company developed in conjunction with Oculus. (In general terms: Samsung made the hardware with insight gleaned from Oculus’ own R&D process, and Oculus developed software to work with the Android ecosystem. In return, Samsung created custom displays for the Oculus Rift, the consumer version of which will come out in the first quarter of 2016.) By itself, the Gear VR is a piece of plastic with a headstrap, a couple of lenses, and an onboard motion sensor. Paired with a Samsung phone, however, it becomes the most robust VR system you can have until dedicated desktop systems arrive next year.
The thing is, this first honest-to-goodness VR solution is really the tenth. Since last year, there have been two “Innovator Editions” of the Samsung Gear VR released—one that worked only with the Galaxy Note 4, and a later one that worked with the Galaxy S6. There have been four prototypes for the Oculus Rift (two of which you could buy), two for PlaystationVR (nee “Project Morpheus”), and one for HTC Vive. And we’re not even counting the ecosystem of cheaper, Google Cardboard-like solutions that’s lurking out there on the depths of Amazon, or the many, many crowd-funded HMDs still in development.
But while WIRED, and many other outlets, have been covering all of these prototypes and the experiences they make possible, people simply haven’t been able to have those experiences. Virtual reality is famously indescribable; I can write all day about what it’s like to descend into the sea in a shark cage, or hang out with a lonely hedgehog, or walk through the streets of Liberia, or sit in a fake room and watch real Netflix on a giant fake TV. Until you do it yourself, though, it’s all just words.
Coming as it does on the heels of The New York Times’ grand Google Cardboard experiment, the Gear VR represents much more than just a product. It’s a play to bring VR into the zeitgeist not just conceptually, but experientially. At $99—half the price of the original Innovator Edition—it’s effectively a stocking stuffer for the holiday season, depending on how expensive your stockings are.
So now it’s here, and it raises a brand-new question: How the hell do you review the thing? Yes, the headset is 19 percent lighter; yes, the touchpad has new contouring and a new button; yes, the volume rocker has moved more toward the front. But incremental improvements mean just about nothing if the result isn’t a compelling experience. So screw the changes—let’s just talk about what the damn thing is, how you use it, and if you need it. (Spoiler: Yes!)
For all of VR’s historical barriers to entry, they all boil down to one: what happens when you take a headset out of the box. Making this an intuitive experience was absolutely paramount. All you need to do is connect the phone to the headset cradle via the micro-USB port, and snap it in place. A selector switch inside accounts for the size difference between the S6 line and the Note line (and yes, you must use a current-generation Samsung Galaxy Note or Edge phone). The Oculus Store launches automatically, and you’re up and running. Or, rather, up and browsing. There are currently more than 100 games, apps, and “experiences” available in the store—many of them free—and Max Cohen, Oculus’ head of mobile, says that there are are least 40 more coming in the next couple of months. And many of those apps are content catalogs themselves: In Oculus Video alone, you can stream Vimeo and Twitch, watch trailers, purchase dozens of movies, or sideload your own—then watch them in a huge, silent virtual theater.
If you’d rather browse non-virtually, you can launch the Oculus app on your phone and scroll through the offerings. If you try to launch any of them, however, the phone will prompt you to connect it to the Gear VR.
Comfort and ease of input have long been concerns for VR hardware manufacturers, and Samsung has clearly spent some time honing them both. On the top of the headset, a rotary dial lets you adjust focus; while glasses will fit in the headset, and don’t prove to be a hindrance beyond getting the headset on and off, people with lightweight prescriptions might be better served taking their glasses off and relying on the focus knob. A layer of soft foam layer cushions 99 percent of any part of the Gear VR that touches your face; the only unlined part is a centimeter-long gap where the bridge of your nose might hit. That only proved to be uncomfortable if I was lying on my back, or had my head tilted all the way back.
On the right side, a cross-shaped touchpad allows for four-way navigation, with a small tap-to-select sensor at the center of the cross. A small oval “back” button sits about a half-inch above the touchpad, and a volume rocker is about an inch in front—nearly all the way up to the phone cradle. All of the controls are easily accessible, but just separated enough to avoid unintentional button presses. You can also pair a Samsung or third-party Bluetooth controller with the phone, which comes in handy for some of games, particularly the old-school titles you can play in the Arcade app, stand-up cabinets and all.
Beyond the primary headstrap that attaches at the sides of the Gear VR, there’s also a top strap that you can affix between the back of the headstrap and the top of the device. The headset is light enough that you don’t need it for support, but it can come in handy if your hair makes things a little slippery. (With a shaved head, I never needed it, but I did find that the Gear VR had enough of a weight savings over its Innovator Edition predecessor that going top-strapless felt better for longer.)
The two concerns that I had about the Gear VR in earlier versions, battery drain and overheating phones, have largely been mitigated. An hour of solid use hits my Note 5 for anywhere from 15-20 percent. Only once have I gotten a warning to disconnect the phone before it gets too hot, and it was after nearly two hours of intense play of the bomb-defusing game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.
Differences on Display
OK, so you got a Google Cardboard in the mail. You can slap your iPhone in there, and it was free. Why would you consider upgrading?
A few reasons, and they’re all benefits of Oculus and Samsung partnering up on this thing. For one, every other mobile headset—whether Cardboard or something like it—relies solely on your phone’s accelerometer to track your head’s movement. The Gear VR has a dedicated onboard sensor that takes 1000 samples per second, which significantly lowers the delay between your head’s movement and seeing your virtual surroundings change accordingly. That delay, known as “latency,” is one of the major culprits behind VR nausea; while it can still plague mobile systems, Oculus has managed to reduce latency to under 20 milliseconds, which makes things feel stable, responsive, and comfortable. I’ve regularly worn the Gear VR for more than an hour at a clip—whether watching Netflix, wandering among Gaugin paintings at London’s Cortauld Gallery, browsing through thousands of panoramic 360-degree images, or or exploring the peaceful puzzle-strewn islands of the game Land’s End.
Second, while only working with a small selection of phones might seem like a drag, it circumvents the difficulties of developing for a fragmented OS like Android. That narrow scope allowed Oculus to ignore the needs of other phones, and instead squeeze everything they could out of Samsung’s mobile hardware. Then there’s the screen: while pixel density is important, Samsung’s own AMOLED screens allow for what’s called “low-persistence” display. That means that each pixel actually spends only 30 percent of its time illuminated—by flashing the display on and then off again, it drastically reduces the motion blur when you turn your head quickly. On other mobile headsets, the image can appear to smear across your vision. Not so in the Gear VR. Through hours and hours of use, my only moments of discomfort came from 360-degree videos (which some people argue are a speed bump for VR innovation).
Is it Worth It?
It was last September when I first put on the first Innovator Edition of the Gear VR , and I remember my reaction as clearly as if it happened yesterday: this thing has no right to feel this good. Before that, I’d dismissed “smartphone VR” as impossibility for at least a couple of years. But that original version of the Gear VR changed my mind. And in the intervening year, the two companies have streamlined the hardware while building a software experience that manages to usher people into the age of immersion stumble-free.
So yes. Good VR is here. After three and a half years, I can’t believe I’m finally saying it, but it is. It’s in Best Buy, it’s on Amazon, it’s in T-Mobile and AT&T stores, it’s just fucking here. If you have a Samung phone already, spending $99 on it is a no-brainer. There’s nothing like it, and unless you have a high-end gaming PC or a Playstation 4—and then spend more than $300 on the VR system to go with them—it’s your best shot at VR for the next year or more. If you’re an iOS user, though, your choice gets tougher. Samsung hasn’t officially announced any headset/phone bundles, but I’d be surprised if some deals don’t come along that let you buy in at a discount and use the phone as the VR version of an iPod Touch. After all, when VR’s your future, phones can be loss leaders.