Review: Samsung Gear VR

It’s been an interesting year for entertainment, and the next few years promise to be even more curious, as virtual reality goes beyond that of science fiction into something real and usable thanks to Samsung and Oculus.

What is VR?

You’ve probably seen the term over the year, and the initialism pops up more often than the term itself, but you might not quite understand what VR is.

Simply put, “VR” translates to “virtual reality”, and the name couldn’t be more indicative of what the topic is.

Basically, it is a world shown to you that is so enveloping, you believe — even temporarily — that it’s your own world.

Messing with one’s senses isn’t easy to do, and so to make virtual reality happen, you wear a headset that pushes a screen close to your eyes. When you do that, a small screen can look large, so large it can appear like a massive movie theatre, which was the case with the old head-mounted displays.

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The larger first generation Gear VR from earlier in the year.

But VR goes a little further than that, utilising movement sensors like a compass and accelerometer to change your position in the virtual world. This means instead of looking at one thing and having that travel with your head, as was the case with the classic head-mounted display, when you turn in the VR world, the device picks up on that position and moves you in the 3D world, shifting your direction so that the world rotates around you.

This neat trickery not only gives you a greater world to look through — one might say a virtual world, even — but also convinces you temporarily that you are somewhere else.

Developers have to be a little playful to make apps and games work in this way, because typically they’re designing for one view, not a 360 degree video, and even filmmakers have to shake up their directorial skills, because in that medium, the view is everywhere and not one location.

Still, over the past few years since Oculus first popped up on Kickstarter promising to revive the VR movement of the 90s, and then subsequently was bought out by Facebook, the virtual reality effort has been in full swing.

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Experiencing the world of Vincent van Gogh in a virtual world, with one image for each eye.

What is the Gear VR?

Gear VR is Samsung’s attempt to capitalise on the virtual reality movement ahead of other players, because while game makers Sony and Valve are each working on separate devices designed to talk to consoles and PCs, Samsung wants to use the devices it’s already selling to consumers.

Specifically, Samsung wants to leverage the powerful screens used in its smartphones to make virtual reality possible.

That’s important, too, because virtual reality needs a good screen.

We talk about screen technology in our reviews because it’s significant, not just from a picture point of view, but for your eyes. In theory, there’s a technical limit to what our eyes can see, but better screens are better overall.

In VR, when you’re placing a screen up in front of your eyes, screen quality matters significantly because no one wants to stare at a low grade display where you can make out the pixels.

Unfortunately, the closer you bring a screen to your eyes, the more chance you have of seeing them. That’s just a factor, and with the VR headsets of the nineties to naughties, that was the case, aside for the games and apps being fairly limited.

These days, however, screens are vastly improved.

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Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Edge offers the same 2560×1440 screen as the rest of the flagships this year.

In fact, every one of Samsung’s flagship smartphones from 2015 relies on the same style of panel, even if the sizes and curvature differ between them.

Whether you’re using a Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy S6 Edge+, or Galaxy Note 5, you have a 2560×1440 panel, otherwise known as Quad HD. Between these models, there are notable size differences, with 5.1 inch panels used on the S6 and S6 Edge, while 5.7 inch panels are used on the S6 Edge+ and Note 5, and still beyond that difference, there are changes to the curvature of the screen or a different layer of touch technology thrown in (that’s the Note 5 for you).

By and large, however, the phones are largely the same from a screen point of view. In fact, they’re largely the same from a technology point of view, too, with the same processor, the same cameras, and the same lack of upgradeable memory.

This uniform hardware means an accessory like the Gear VR has less variables to account for, and that’s a good thing, because stability is what you want in an entertainment platform you’re pushing so close to your face.

So what is this thing?

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Basically, the Gear VR is a phone holder designed to take any of Samsung’s 2015 flagship phones and allow your eyes to focus on the screen.

When the phone is loaded into the holder and the special software it needs loads in place, the phone splits the image in two, revealing two frames of 1280×1440 for your eyes to view.

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You don’t just view it dead on, either, with two plastic lenses inside the Gear VR that you can change the focus depth of dependent on how good (or bad) your eyes are.

When all is ready, you’ll be able to look at a three dimensional image on screen courtesy of your brain doing the math for what your eyes are seeing, and it’s not just a static 3D image either.

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Because there’s a computer in that phone of yours, it can load games, apps, and 360 degree movies so that when you look around, you’ll see something other than what you saw in front of you.

This means games are more than one scene, and are especially great when you’re sitting in a spinning chair, while 360 degree movies challenge the way you watch them so that you can look around and experience a different reality. Some would say a virtual reality.

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A touchpad sits on the side of the headset with directions moulded out of it, allowing you to control apps that still require directions other than what your head can provide, while a few extra buttons control sound and leaving the apps.

You can also use headphones using the 3.5mm jack on the phone or go Bluetooth (which is easily preferred), and there’s even a microUSB charge port on the bottom of the unit to keep your phone charged while you use the headset, because keeping the screen on and the processor running will make a dent on the battery life.

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We should note, however, that technically Gear VR isn’t really a VR headset per se. True VR headsets include the screen already in them, and for this one, you need a phone. Given the touchpad inside, you might even call it a mouse with lenses, because that’s basically what it is.

But it’s also an intro to the world of VR, and offers people who travel an exciting way to escape and watch their own movies with a screen that their head thinks is bigger than life itself.

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