Samsung Gear VR Review

on Thursday, January 1, 2015
The Oculus Rift is an awesome virtual reality headset. Google Cardboard is an awesome one too. But what if you could have the best of both? Simple and high-tech all at once. That's Samsung's Gear VR. You can probably do the math for how cool that is. (It's awesome.)

What Is It?

An official Oculus-branded virtual reality headset that's powered by the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. You literally fit it inside. A bulkier, cushier, more serious version of Google Cardboard. A mobile VR headset with no wires required. An "innovator edition," which is to say a tool for developers, not a completely polished retail product. Freakin' neat.

Why Does It Matter?

After decades, virtual reality is on the verge of being a real and real cool thing (depending on who you ask). The Oculus Rift is the not-so-far-off pinnacle of the technology, but phone-based VR headsets are also pretty dope. If you've already got a high-res supercomputer in your pocket, why not turn it into a VR experience too? It's a potentially easier way for virtual reality to go mainstream than pairing a dedicated headset with a beefy gaming PC. It's also available today. With Gear VR, Samsung and Oculus are putting their best foot forward.


Gear VR is simple. So simple that it's almost anticlimactic to pull it out of the box. It's just a big plastic headset for your phone. It's got padding for your faceparts, and headstraps that go both around the back and over the top. Without a Note 4 in place it's remarkably empty looking. It just gawks at you with its big cartoony owl-eye lenses. "You are going to look so dumb when you put me on your face," it whispers. In your heart you know it's right but you don't care.
Gear VR is a little more than just a big, plastic, cushioned Google Cardboard, though; there's a special Oculus tracker inside to help keep your bearing. It's got a touchpad and back button on the side, which lets you have some rudimentary controls without having to pair a Bluetooth controller every time you want to go VR-ing. (Samsung has a controller, but it's not bundled with Gear VR and everything about the VR interface is designed to be used without one.)
The headset's also got some volume buttons, and a handy little proximity sensor on the inside that automatically turns on the screen and boots into the Oculus app when you put it on, and puts it to sleep when you rip it off. And on top, there's a little focus wheel that pushes and pulls the Note 4 screen towards and away from your face to focus. It's way easier to adjust to your eyes than the Rift developer kits.
Then there's the front. This is where you snap in your Note 4 and only your Note 4, and since the Gear VR has been designed so very specifically with this one handset in mind, the fit is like Cinderella's foot in a glass slipper. It's easy and satisfying to click it into place.
On the one end, there's a little microUSB nub that plugs into the bottom of the Note 4 to make the touchpad, back button and volume control work—it doesn't charge your phone. On the other side there's a little doodad that secures the device. It's simple and gets the job done.
It's worth noting here that while Samsung has pointedly said that you're not supposed to try and fit the Galaxy Note Edge in here, you totally can. I mean, it doesn't "fit" in the conventional sense, but I've crammed it in a few times without breaking anything (yet). The problem is that the Note Edge doesn't launch the Oculus app when you plug it in. I'm sure there's probably some workaround but it probably involves black magic. Or at least root access.
The finishing touch is a reflective little shield that snaps onto the outside, over the phone. It's completely cosmetic and I barely ever used it, but it's there if you want to look a little more like Kid Vid, or if you don't want to advertise that you literally have a phone strapped to your face.

Using It

Setup is both simple and annoying. All you have to do is snap the phone into the the headset, lift it up to your face and you're off to the races. Well, kind of. Doing so will prompt you to download a ton of stuff. In my case it was an OS update, then the Oculus app, then more stuff inside the Oculus app. The whole process took about an hour. Fortunately Gear VR comes with a microSD card that has all the huge 4K panoramas and 360 videos pre-loaded so you don't have to spend the rest of your life waiting for fun stuff to download.

Packed in you get some stuff like extremely hi-res panoramas of Mars and the bottom of the ocean and major cities, even a few spots in Chernobyl. Also there are some 360 videos that take you over New Zealand and New York City, and there's a 3D-rendered ad Samsung did for the World Cup. Though the Note 4 is a powerful phone, it'll never be able to replicate the horsepower of a gaming PC. So Gear VR is sort of aimed at watching videos and looking at photos and lighter fare than exploring the galaxy in a gunship like Elite Dangerous, and Samsung's pack-in media reflects that.
It also reflects a bigger problem with Gear VR right now: Watching videos and looking at pictures and playing simple phone-type games is fun for 20-30 minutes of amusement, but it's nothing that will suck you in like a 10-12 hour game will, and there aren't really any of those yet. It's an effect that sometimes makes Gear VR feel more like a really bad-ass Viewmaster than a true VR headset; the same way Google Cardboard is fun for a burst but not for hours.
When you first slap Gear VR on after everything's loaded up, you'll get dropped into the Oculus Home hub. Basically it's just a series of panels that float in front of you in some boundless blue expanse. 
You use the Gear's touchpad to swipe between pages of app icons, and select things by looking at them and tapping. It's a convenient and intuitive way to get around without requiring a gamepad. If you want to let someone else play with Gear VR for the first time, it's super easy: all you have to do is put it on their head, move one of their hands to the focus wheel and the other to the touchpad and back button. From there they can handle it on their own.
Should any phone notifications come in while you're there, they just pop up in a little card that says "One new text message" and then vanish from existence. If you need to see the real world for a sec without taking off the headset, that's possible too: just hold down the Back button and you can look through the Note 4's camera. It's a little laggy and not at all like using your eyeballs, but useful in a pinch.

I think my favorite of the built-in apps is the Oculus Cinema. Sean's talked about it at length, but it's worth mentioning again; the thing is awesome. It's basically a theater simulator. The app sits you down in a small home theater, a big movie theater, in a black void, or on THE MOON.
Wherever you choose, you watch content on a screen in front of you, but the real joy is being in the 3D space surrounding it. Looking around to inspect the home theater chairs around you is almost as fun as watching a 3D movie trailer (and yes, you can watch 3D movies in 3D in this 3D space). And the little details, like seeing an "Approved for all audiences" screen throw green light onto moonrocks, or seeing a lit-up EXIT sign on the periphery of the theater, make these feel like real places. Oculus Cinema is where I felt the most presence in Gear VR, where I felt the most like I actually was somewhere else.


Man, VR is just so cool. I mean, ugh, I can't even verbalize how cool it is to have a VR headset hanging around my apartment.
Gear VR is stupid simple so it's fantastic for introducing other people to VR. My co-workers had a blast passing it around. My somewhat tech-averse fiancee specifically requested to try it out. Samsung's headset is the easiest way to show people what good virtual reality looks like, without making them come to your nerd-den. Carrying around and showing off Gear VR is infinitely easier than schlepping around an Oculus Rift DK2 and a gaming laptop or something.
It's not wildly (or at all) relevant to using Gear VR for virtual reality, but the Note 4 is a pretty damn good phone.

No Like

I wish there was more to do in it. More stuff should come later, but the lack of games and the relative shallowness of most of the offerings make the experience feel shallow. It's awesome, it just doesn't hold my attention for long. I didn't find anything that made me feel all "OH MY GOD I NEED TO DO THIS FOR HOURS!!!" but every 5-10 minute burst I had was great fun.
Not being able to charge and VR at the same time is dumb. 3 hours of battery life isn't bad, but the bigger problem is that we're talking about the battery life of your phone. Who wants to burn through 30 percent of phone battery to mess around in VR for a bit? That shit is precious!
$200 is a teensy bit expensive for a face-case with no controller included. Gear VR is definitely a big leap beyond Google Cardboard, or other "slap your phone in here" face-cases, but it's just not quite a $200 leap. At $100 though it'd be a slam dunk.
There's no guarantee a Galaxy Note 5 will fit in here.

Should You Buy It

Probably not. Unless you are a developer, this isn't even really meant for you. Yes Gear VR is super cool, and super promising for the future of virtual reality, but there's not enough to do quite yet to justify getting one. That is, unless you are a bleeding-edge evangelist who wants a VR headset you can bring to parties. The content might come in time, but still, the tech is bound to leap forward in the next year or two. I mean look at the leap from the first Rift to DK2.
The hardware on Gear VR is all Samsung (Oculus just provides software) so it's not a perfect parallel, but expect big leaps in screen quality if nothing else. 518ppi is absurd for a phone, but it's not good enough for VR. And Samsung has made it pretty clear that "beastly phones that are made for VR" is a road it wants to go down. This is not a one-off. Rest assured the Note 5 will be repping VR as well, maybe in an even bigger way.
That said, Gear VR is an awesome proof of concept; it's exciting to see a phone-based VR system that's this good. It's exciting that we've come this far in the two or so years since the Rift DK1 shipped. It's exciting to see how great VR could spread to normal people who wouldn't have to buy a whole gadget especially for it. This is almost undoubtedly the way virtual reality will make its way to the masses.
The Gear VR feels like proof that VR headsets aren't a dead-end this time around, and that you probably won't have to go out of your way to get one three or four or five years from now. No, you probably shouldn't buy it right now, but you should be very glad it exists.


Post a Comment