Samsung, LG, and Facebook Put VR in the Hands of the Masses
With the company’s announcements at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Samsung is pushing the point that VR is a very good reason to buy its phones.
Not that the company’s latest Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge handsets need VR to be compelling: Their cameras look bonkers-good, they’re both waterproof, and their components are bleeding-edge. But they’re also both compatible with the existing Gear VR headset, and Samsung announced it’ll be throwing in a free Gear VR and six games if you preorder one of the new Galaxy phones before March 18.
It’s an important push for wider adoption of VR, which is still in its nascent stages. Even in these early days, it’s clear that immersive display technologies aren’t just built for one type of experience or one type of buyer. Like TVs, laptops, or smartphones, virtual reality headsets can be used to do a number of things: View 360-degree videos built specifically for them, play next-generation games, or simply watch 2-D Netflix movies in a virtual theater. Also, prices vary widely, from $1,500 for an Oculus Rift and a computers to power it, to quick-and-dirty $25 phone-driven experiences like Google Cardboard.
Somewhere in the middle is Samsung’s Gear VR headset. It uses the company’s latest Galaxy S and Galaxy Note phones as displays and processing hubs, making it a similar experience to Cardboard. But the $99 Gear VR headset is a lot more comfy than a fold-up cardboard viewer, and between the Oculus and Milk VR stores accessible through the device, there’s a lot more content to play around with. It doesn’t have the positional tracking or hard-core gaming abilities that computer- and console-driven headsets will have once they’re available, but there are innovative games and 360-degree experiences galore.
Facebook on Your Face
The other big Gear VR news from MWC came from Facebook. The company announced its Facebook 360 videos have been optimized for playback on Gear VR, and that they’ll be viewable via Gear VR in the coming weeks. The optimization involves a smart allocation of video resolution based on where the viewer is looking: Rather than feed a full 360-degrees of video at its highest resolution at all times, Facebook says the delivery system will adjust the resolution depending on where you’re looking, providing high-resolution feeds without requiring ridiculous amounts of bandwidth.
That won’t just give the masses a first taste of “social VR,” as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes it, but it will also put creating VR experiences squarely in the hands of consumers. And mobile giants are expanding their VR offerings to cover that piece of the puzzle, taking a crack at an end-to-end creating/viewing pipeline.
If you follow the world of TVs, you’re aware that Samsung and LG trade punches on the regular. That’s happening in VR too: Also at MWC, LG announced a VR headset to go along with its latest flagship phone, the LG G5. But it’s an entirely different animal. The Cardboard-compatible LG 360 headset is small; closer to Geordi La Forge’s wraparounds than a pair of ski goggles. The smaller size is possible because it has its own displays; you use the G5 as a USB-C-tethered brain for it. But unlike Samsung’s Gear VR, LG’s headset is an accessory rather than a platform unto itself.
It’s on the content-creation side that both South Korean tech giants have similar plans. Both LG and Samsung announced slick, easy-to-use compact cameras that record video and still images in 360 degrees, designed to be used with their new flagship phones.
LG’s new 360 CAM is the other tech giant’s own entry into consumer VR image capture. The LG 360 CAM is like a Flip for VR, shooting 360-degree photos and video with two 13-megapixel sensors tucked behind a pair of 200-degree field-of-view lenses. It also records 5.1 surround-sound audio, and the videos are built to share via YouTube 360 and Google Street View. Samsung’s new camera is the Gear 360, and it’s a little orb somewhere between the size of a golf ball and baseball. The spherical VR camera records 3840×1920 video with a pair of 150-megapixel sensors through F2.0 lenses, and it comes with its own little tripod.
To be sure, there have been 360-degree video and still cameras before, but most of them have been high-priced professional models or lower-end consumer gadgets without a significant hook to a platform or mobile device. Combined with the Facebook announcement, the introduction of these big-name 360 cameras could be an interesting shift in the way the general public thinks about VR. Rather than something to be consumed, VR has a chance to be a creative medium for the common man—one that normal people can help pioneer without a whole lot of prior art.
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