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.
Kid Vid; Kid Vid cosplay
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.
A shot of the moon theater from Oculus Cinema
The different virtual theaters are limited to the four I mentioned right now, but surely there will be more in the future; Oculus has opened this SDK for people to make as many as they like. You also can't stream videos here right now, no inter-app support from Netflix or anything, but any films or trailers or shows you've got downloaded are fair game. It sounds simple, maybe even stupid, but god damn. The first time you try Oculus Cinema, it immediately proves its worth. You can't do it yet, but if you imagine how rad it would be to sit next to a virtual friend who lives across the country and watch the same movie in the same (virtual) room, you can see exactly why Facebook bought Oculus.
Which brings us to the Rift. How does Gear VR compare? It's not nearly as cool as the latest Rift prototype, but it is still mind-blowingly awesome. Functionally, Gear VR is a better version of the first Oculus Rift, the DK1. The one from the Kickstarter that got everyone all fired up and made some of them puke. Like the DK1, Gear VR is simple. There is no head-tracking, no cameras to set up. You just put it on and look around. In the virtual universe, you are like a head that is mounted on a flagpole; you look up and down and side to side, even slide your flagpole along the ground sometimes, but there's no lean. In Oculus Cinema for instance, you can spin around to see your theater seat and the wall behind it, but leaning your head towards the screen doesn't get you a single inch closer to it.
In other words, this is missing:
The Oculus Rift DK2 doing its head-tracking tricks
On the upside, the Note 4's ridiculous 518ppi AMOLED screen is better than anything on any currently available Oculus Rift. It's not perfect—you can still see the pixels if you look for them, and the screen only refreshes 60 times a second. It does, however, utilize the same software tricks the DK2 uses to eliminate motion blur, which is great and super-duper important.
You've probably heard tales of the original Rift making people get sick after 15 or 20 minutes. Well have no fear, that's not a big issue here; I spent upwards of an hour in Gear VR in one go, no problems. Other than the residual shame that comes naturally after you wear a phone on your face for an hour. The sick-making was in large part due to motion blur; images would smear on the early Rifts if you turned your head too fast. The Gear VR doesn't suffer from that problem. Gear VR's screen—and software—is good enough to get around it.
A screenshot from Darknet, one of the games launching with Gear VR
There were a few specific instances that sent me reeling, though. The worst was playing something called Dreadhalls, a horror game originally designed for the DK1 and ported over to Gear VR. It's a first-person game, one that requires a controller to walk your character around. I'm not sure if it's residual motion blur that comes from the game, the inherent trippiness of seeing your virtual body run without any physiological response, or the lack of head-tracking, which makes leaning and moving around in real life a more disorienting experience. Either way that game gave me instant and severe vertigo when I tried sprinting away from some monsters. I had to tear the headset right off.
That was a pretty isolated experience, maybe in part because the rest of the games available on Gear VR right now aren't super robust controller-based games. Most of the games are little gimmicky phone-type games, but in a 3D space. Look at this robot and then tap the touchpad to fire balls at him. Here's a puzzle game that takes place inside a sphere. All cool, but there's precious little of the "you're exploring a virtual room!" that makes virtual reality incredible.