With the upcoming releases of the consumer-ready Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, virtual reality is about ready for use by regular people, not just the early adopters and developers, but Samsung is there now, and if you have an S6 or S6 Edge smartphone, you can see the future anywhere you go.
Features and performance
The second of the Gear VR units, the Gear VR Innovator Edition for Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge is a unique attempt by Samsung to capitalise on the upcoming virtual reality (VR) market by integrating some of Samsung’s already popular mobile phone handsets.
We’ve already mentioned that this is the second model, and this follows Samsung’s first generation product, the Gear VR for Galaxy Note 4 which was a similar product built for the Galaxy Note 4 smartphone released near the end of last year.
Australia was a little late in getting that first Gear VR unit, missing the Christmas 2014 expectation and arriving in March of 2015, but at least with the new model, we’re up there as one of the first places in the world to receive the unit.
That means it’s time for a review, as Samsung lets us take a newly minted edition of the Gear VR for a spin, with this variant designed for owners of the recently released Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge smartphones.
Samsung’s Gear VR is the company’s take on what the virtual reality entertainment platform should be with its compatible smartphones, taking a basic headset with lenses and allowing compatible smartphones to dock in the provided space and turn the screen into something your eyes can focus on through those lenses to take over your world.
It’s not just the screen of the smartphone that needs to be used, though, as the phone is also the computer controlling what happens on screen, as well as the accelerometer revealing your point in the space that the screen is supposed to be plunging you into.
So you need both things, and once the phone is pushed into the dock in the headset, Oculus can be installed and run.
Setup is fairly easy for this: simply follow those instructions, attach the neck band and top headband to do the headset, and when the phone is docked and the Oculus software is installed, the right app will run every time you dock the phone with the supplied microUSB connector, with the Samsung Gear VR home showing off a digital living room complete with Eames chair that you can’t actually touch, and a simple grid based system for you to focus on with a glance, selecting the category, app, or experience with a touch of the touchpad on the right side.
Let’s talk comfort, though, because that’s one of the first differences you’ll see between the S6 variant of the Gear VR and the previous model, the one made for the Galaxy Note 4.
With different sizes of smartphones comes differences in the size of the virtual reality headset Samsung can produce, and because the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge offer smaller displays at 5.1 inches compared to the 5.7 inch screen on the Galaxy Note 4, the whole unit can take a slight change in design.
This means a diminished size, a slight drop in weight, and less pressure on the bridge of your nose when you wear the Gear VR headset helped by extra foam around this section of the headset, meaning it can be more comfortable for longer periods of time.
Very little about the unit has changed outside of this, though the touchpad now has a little bump to tell you that yes, you’re touching the right section of the headset when you need to control it, which is handy.
Samsung has made some improvements to the diopter, which now appears to go a little further in its wheel adjustment on the top of the headset which should accommodate users with a little worse eyesight than what we saw in use on the Note 4.
Also added is a microUSB port, found on the bottom of the headset which will mean your phone can charge during use, which means you can use the Gear VR over a long flight and not worry about having to take the phone out to charge it, which was a problem on the first generation, especially since battery life was barely three hours on that model.
There’s even a light sensor built into the body, which will switch the screen off to save battery power when light is detected, another way of saying your skin and head isn’t pressed into the headset making the whole sensor go dark.
A cloth bag is now included, too, making it easy to take the Gear VR unit with you, and is a little more useful than the large moulded zip-up case from the Gear VR for Note 4.
Also gone from the original is the plastic cover, which was a waste of time since you always took it off to put a phone in and never really replaced it.
Overall, though, the biggest deal is the decision to make the headset smaller to fit a smaller phone, resulting in a better long term fit, ideal because it won’t hurt as much when you’re watching a movie and playing a game over a long period of time.
Little about how the Gear VR actually functions has changed, however, and this is more or less the same concept as the Note 4 version shrunk to a smaller mobile.
In action, you’re still looking through two lenses to view a 5.1 inch 2560×1440 display cut into two, which ends up showing you two 720p squares on either side.
The screen provided through the headset is a higher quality, too, boasting 577 pixels per inch, which looks great as a mobile phone handset, but can still show pixelation when viewed up close using the lenses of the Gear VR headset.
It’s not enough to diminish the wow factor of using the Gear VR for S6 and S6 Edge, and with the right video experience or game, the fact that you can sit anywhere and be immersed in a totally different world is very, very cool, even if you have to bring your own headphones to complete the immersion, something we had hoped Samsung would have maybe patched into this unit, but that still isn’t here.
The touchpad is still the main way for you to interact in apps and games, pausing videos you’re playing, while a back button above this will take you back to the main menu which still offers reorienting and a passthrough camera.
Volume buttons can still be found on the edge of the display, too, just under where the phone would be docked, putting all the buttons you need in view of your right hand.
One downside to the Gear VR for S6 and S6 Edge, though, is the lack of upgradeable memory found in the S6 and S6 Edge smartphones, a decision by Samsung to each of those phones that we criticised earlier in the year when we reviewed them.
That decision means Samsung can’t really supply a demo microSD in the box like it did with the Note 4 Gear VR headset, and you have to get your demo material another way.
We wondered how this would affect things early on, too, and while Samsung never really got back to our requests for comment on this matter, we now know how this whole thing will work: streaming.
Yes, the solution for Samsung’s lack of memory upgrade comes through streaming videos to your phone, a decision that if we’re honest really isn’t the best.
One of the better demo videos from the original Gear VR was a helicopter tour of Iceland, and while this video could have been in better quality, it was very immersive.
Unfortunately, this video is no longer stored on the unit because there is no microSD card, and it comes down streamed to your Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge phone instead, which can result in slowdowns, pauses, and a file quality that isn’t even as good as what it looked like on the original unit.
Low quality video and video that pauses to cache just doesn’t make the Gear VR experience any better — far from it, in fact — and unless you have a super-strong WiFi connection or 4G data you don’t mind wasting, the experiences offered by the demo videos just aren’t impressive.
Instead, those demo videos look blurry, soft, and take a while to get themselves up to the point of looking clear thanks to needing to be downloaded, and by then you might have given up, wondering why Samsung made streaming the main way of getting demo videos on the Gear VR.
You can, of course, download other videos from the store — they call them “experiences” — but these aren’t small, either. Initial file sizes don’t look particular big for some of them — 10 or 20MB — but after installation, they’ll download a good 200-600MB of information, at least, before the video can continue.
At least these videos appear to be of a higher quality than what Samsung offers for demo streams, and Samsung is continually adding to its collection of apps, games, and experiences, with more likely to come as a result of the Oculus Jam programming competition going on at the moment, telling us the longevity of the Gear VR is still pretty good, just not what Samsung provides as demo material.
In fact, Samsung has even reduced what is available, and some of the better images in the 360 photos world have been removed, with no more Mars images from NASA while the shots of the desolation from Chernobyl have disappeared. You do get some temples, deserts, and some photos from other places around the world, as well as some CGI images from video games and digital architectural plans — virtual homes, so to speak — but our favourites from the first Gear VR have disappeared, and they download gradually, highlighting that online only stream again.
Some of Getty’s 360 images have been preloaded, so that’s handy, and the Gear VR home screen is much better this time around, but really we’d have appreciated a microSD slot in either the phone (which isn’t going to happen) or the headset (which isn’t here, either), because with no way to expand the storage, you’re going to be pretty limited in what you can load on the handset that’s of a virtual reality nature.
But Samsung’s own “Milk VR” system still hasn’t been made available locally, a shame since it offers more videos than just what the Oculus store rolls out, and even allows you to easily load your own complicated-to-make virtual reality videos if you have the setup, time, and inclination.
Also still a bit of a problem are the lenses found on the Gear VR headset which just like on the previous Gear VR unit fog up in no time.
Perhaps we’re too close, and perhaps we’re too intrigued by the imagery on screen, but what we can tell you is that you’ll have to take the headset off frequently and wipe down the lenses, as these fog up without any problems, and all too frequently.
One of the developers at Oculus, famed game maker and the man responsible for “Doom” John Carmack, has said that defog wipes have helped in his experiences, so we’re surprised Samsung hasn’t looked into including some with the Gear VR, because they’re definitely needed.
A little more expensive than its Gear VR for Note 4 brother, and yet a little lighter and better design, the Gear VR Innovator Edition for Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge gets a little closer to being a product you’d want to put your eyes on often if not for the fact that Samsung seems to have gone a bit backwards in regards to use and entertainment quality.
Let’s get something out of the way: we’re not slighting the quality of the Gear VR unit itself.
In its second iteration, Samsung has already improved some elements, with a better comfort, improvements to design, and an included microUSB port which is definitely more than welcome.
But this Gear VR takes a different handset, and one that can’t take a microSD card. That lack of expansion means Samsung has had to take an alternate route with demo material, and means it streams instead of being stored, with this change often resulting in video slowdowns and a reduction in quality.
In a virtual world, that’s a frustrating turn of events, and means your immersive experience doesn’t feel quite as good as it did on the Note 4, unless you happen to have the best reception — 4G or WiFi — at the time.
If the media is stored on your phone, you’ll be fine, but given that the games and video experiences are all very, very large for the Gear VR, you’ll want to tread carefully since you can’t just upgrade the storage when you want to.
This turn of events, this change of upgradeability on the part of the Samsung Galaxy handsets, appears to make the Gear VR for S6 and S6 Edge just a little less immersive, at least for now until we see a more reliable streaming system, or unless you own the 128GB equivalent of the Samsung Galaxy S6 handsets, and then you have plenty of storage to load your own videos in.
Right now, the content is still lacking, though more is being made, making this a neato gadget to check out if you’re already an S6 or S6 Edge owner and want to be an early adopter of virtual reality technology, too.
We still think the Gear VR has a way to go, and Samsung definitely needs to bring back the microSD slot to make the handset more usable for large and immersive videos, but this isn’t a bad second round for the portable virtual headset, even if it is a pretty expensive package once you factor in the cost of the phone.