Oculus announced a lot of cool stuff at its developer conference today, like a set of new streaming apps, including one for Netflix that’s available now. But there was a verifiable Oprah moment at the Dolby Theater in LA when it was announced that Samsung’s new Gear VR headset will be sold for $100 this fall.
I got to see one in person when I met with Samsung today and I don’t think I’m overstating things when I estimate that this one product will instantly push VR into the mainstream.
Much of the focus for this Gear VR version was on improving comfort, says Jim Willson, director of immersive products and virtual reality for Samsung. That started with lowering the headset’s weight. The stripped-down headset is 22 percent lighter than the existing Gear VR Innovator Edition (which sold for $200) thanks to a streamlined design that trades some of the plastic parts for webbing or mesh.
There are also some nice material changes: Instead of using indifferent foam where the goggles meet your face, there’s a second layer of soft padding that’s almost like the microfleece you’d find on one of those supercuddly baby blankets. Just this tiny difference in texture improves the tactile experience and also makes the headset feel less likely to slide down your face in a current of nose grease.
Although additional comfort was deemed key, there are some technical improvements: The touchpad on the temple now has little grooves that help guide your finger in four directions, something that’s infinitely helpful when you can’t see where you’re touching. It was also important to help lower the learning curve, says Tom Harding, immersive products and VR director for Samsung. “We wanted to make sure from a mobile VR perspective that it’s intuitive to use.”
But maybe even more important than all that is the fact that the new Gear VR is also engineered to fit more phones—albeit only new Samsung ones. The Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 edge+, S6 and S6 edge all snap into the adjustable headset. So people who might have been putting off purchasing one because they don’t have the right phone no longer have an excuse.
Plus, at the $99 price point (reminder: phone not included) VR is now cheaper than an iPod Touch. And no other virtual reality headset comes close. This not only makes the product much more accessible, it’s creating even more of a gateway drug for VR by loading it up with some very user-friendly mainstream apps like Netflix. Meaning virtual reality will no longer be the realm of role-players. This is VR your grandparents will want.
The lower price point is also poised to potentially change several industries. Beyond gaming and entertainment, Samsung is seeing applications in fields like education and the nonprofit world where organizations being able to afford more headsets could make a critical difference. Willson gave an example of surgeons who are using it to teach complicated medical procedures. “Now at this price point, this is a game-changer.”
The timing also couldn’t be better really, as this is basically the most perfect Christmas present (it will be available for purchase by Black Friday). Of course, this is all provided you have the phones. But who knows? This may be such an intriguing prospect to some consumers that Samsung might be selling a few new phones this holiday as well.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA
Top photos by Alissa Walker/Gizmodo; other photos courtesy Samsung