The virtual world is here, and you can actually take it with you, as Samsung’s Gear VR finally makes its way to Australia. Is this a future that you can take home today, or should you just let it mature a little longer?
Features and performance
Regular readers to GadgetGuy might know how obsessed we are with technology, and it’s true: our desks are packed with it.
When we wake up in the morning, those of us responsible for writing and reviewing gear have probably been clued into the technology news of the world before we’ve found out what the weather is outside.
This is what we do, after all, and technological developments are our world.
So you can imagine just how excited we get when we’re able to play with truly new technology: future ideas that can bring a great wealth of entertainment, edutainment, and a learnings that can change the way we think. Essentially, it’s like thinking outside the regular box that is common technology, because most of what we see every day is commonplace in some way, even if it changes year on year and gets better all the time.
But Samsung’s Gear VR is anything but commonplace, and it sits in that category of exciting technology that could change the way we think, or at the very least, the way we tackle boredom.
From a feature standpoint, there’s not a lot to the Gear VR, and essentially, it is just a small headset with a couple of lenses, a dioptre adjustment wheel, a touchpad, a back button, some straps to keep this apparatus to your head and a small bay to hold a phone using a microUSB port.
Notice how we say “a phone” because that was intentional wording; the Samsung Gear VR will only work with one phone at this time, and that is Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4.
Even though the Galaxy Edge is practically identical with the exception of the slightly curved screen on one side, the Gear VR will still only officially talk with the Note 4, and that has to do with the screen.
You see the screen on a Note 4 runs at a resolution of 2560×1440, a pretty special resolution that only a few phones around the world support. It’s higher than Full HD, and offers better pixel clarity for your eyes when you’re viewing the phone as a regular phone, but the Gear VR takes advantage of the screen in a different way.
That resolution allows the Note 4 to split the screen into two square-like displays on the horizontal, capable of showing roughly 1280×1440 on each side. With 1280 across, you will essentially be looking at 720p high definition video per eye.
In essence, virtual reality is similar to 3D in that it works by showing you two images, one per eye. When you go to the movies and watch a 3D flick, each lens — one of the left, one on the right — displays a slightly different picture, situated so that when your brain does the math and sees both, you see the image pop out of the screen in 3D.
VR is like this, and so you’ll see two images in each of the screenshots taken directly from the Gear VR in this review. The image on the left is what you see on your left eye, while the image on the right is the right eye.
With two images and your brain doing the math, the apps and games and movies and images you see on the Gear VR can pop out of the screen and feel more lifelike. You can feel more like you’re a part of this world, the one occurring inside the Galaxy Note 4 and the Gear VR.
But to make it happen, you need to put the two items together.
Plug the Note 4 into the Gear VR and you’ll be asked to download some apps, with Samsung connecting up with Oculus for some apps of the virtual reality persuasion. You’ll want to look inside the little zip up bag for the Gear VR to find the included SD card, because there are quite a few demo movies, trailers, and 360 degree photos on there waiting for you to explore.
Without it, Gear VR will work, but we suggest using it to at least see what’s available to you in the world of VR.
Once everything is installed and the SD card is loaded in, you’re ready to go, and you only need to plug the Galaxy Note 4 into the Gear VR’s microUSB port to automatically start up the Oculus home.
Inside here (and the rest of the Gear VR experience), you’ll find where you aim your head will be one of the main ways to get around, with that target showing up on a reticle in the middle of your sight.
Along the right side of the headset is a touchpad, and by touching this you will be able to select items aimed at with that reticle.
It’s a fairly easy control setup to get used to, and inside other menus, you’ll find swiping left and right gets you through other options, such as selecting apps to install or play, or changing images.
A back button also sits above the touchpad, and this will let you get out of the apps, or if held down, take you back to the basic Oculus home system where you can activate a passthrough camera and see through the headset (by using the Note’s camera).
Let’s talk about those apps, though, because they — and the entertaining videos — are pretty much the main reason you’ll don the Gear VR.
First you’ll find Oculus Videos, and these are for the most part 360 degree videos. Play one and you’ll be able to see a 360 world in motion that you can look around inside.
Samsung has included a few for you to play with, including a short tour over several cities, a relatively boring one inside Marvel’s Iron Man workshop of Tony Stark, and one that always brought a smile to the GadgetGuy staff, a tour of Iceland shot from a helicopter.
Play this video and a world comes to life around you, and you can look up, down, left, right, and generally spin around in a comfy chair to see the full 360 degree world of Iceland take over your eyes. The only thing missing is the sense of movement, but if you get motion sickness, you may find this throws you off balance all the same.
Videos can be found for this around the web, and Samsung and Oculus even have a few apps available on the Oculus Store just for this (Matterport VR, im360 VR).
In fact, one of the first videos you see will be the introduction to VR from Oculus and Samsung, and this will let you do the same, move around and let the world of virtual reality immerse you.
Another included app that has the potential to immerse is the 360 Oculus Photos app, which loads up 360 degree photos shot from all over the world, and then some. These let you do the same as the movies app, moving your head around at all angles to see things as if you were standing in that very spot.
There are quite a few of these photos, and you can explore buildings and spots that you might never visit, including a few surprises, such as under the ocean, Chernobyl, and even four from NASA’s exploration of Mars.
The 360 photos aren’t interactive, and walking in the spot won’t get you closer to the scene, but it’s pretty thrilling to see a world brought to your face, and for many, these scenes will be like grabbing a passport and hitching a plane, or a shuttle in four of the cases.
Beyond the 360 degree photos and videos, you also have apps made to take advantage of this 360 degree world, and one of the most important ones in the package is called Oculus Cinema.
In case the name doesn’t give it away, this is a virtual cinema for your headset, and can load regular 2D movies as well as 3D movies inside of it.
From the outside, your menu here looks a little like you’re attending Universal Studios, but the moment you select the flick you want to see — and Oculus includes some trailers, but we loaded some of our favourite movies for the test — and enter the cinema.
Four cinemas are available for you to watch movies in, with one made to look like a home cinema, one made to look like a regular cinema, one on the Moon, and one just in a never-ending supply of black called the “Void” which we suspect is useful for people who just want a total immersion.
If, however, you like watching movies inside of a cinema, and the experience is something you enjoy, loading your movie files on the big screen is possible, because when you press the Gear VR to your face, the experience is like viewing a big movie screen.
As a result, if you load in movies you like, the virtual cinema makes it feel like you’re watching a movie in a theatre. You can look around and see empty seats, and even look down at the cupholders, but you can’t throw Jaffas or popcorn.
Two-dimensional movies (standard movies) look the way you’d expect them to, and 3D ones can work here, too, though they have to be encoded for 3D playback.
Beyond the cinema app, you’ll find quite a few games available for you to play, including the demo game “Playhead” which demonstrates life inside of a music track and feels like an electronic music equivalent of Tron, “Anshar Wars” which lets you pilot a space fighter simply by aiming your head and touching the side of the Gear VR, “Temple Run VR” which is the same Temple Run you’ve played for ages but has you swiping to the sides to jump and dodge, and “theBlu VR” which is basically a small digital ocean that you can look around in.
We do need to note that some of these games work best with a gamepad, and while we suspect any Bluetooth gamepad will do, Samsung does make one, but it just hasn’t officially released it locally.
One day, maybe.
Finally, there’s a home menu beneath the main menu that you can get to if you need to check the time or want to look through the headset.
Sure, you could always just take the headset off, but why do that when you can hold the back button above the touchpad down for a few seconds and switch the passthrough camera on in that home menu. From here, you can also change the brightness, switch on a comfort mode with more yellow that might be better for your eyes, and fiddle with a do not disturb mode.
Throughout your time with the Gear VR, you’ll probably notice that while the Note 4 makes the sound, headphones would make this a better experience.
Interestingly, there are no built-in headphones for the Gear VR, and so if you want a more personal sound experience, best to plug in a pair to the Note 4’s 3.5mm headset jack, or use a Bluetooth pair. We went with the latter as it made the Gear VR very wireless and easy to use, just make sure you leave them hanging around your neck because it can be hard to see headphones in front of you when your eyes are covered with a display.
Another thing you may notice over time is the amount of strain the Gear VR puts on the bridge of your nose, because it is definitely noticeable. It’s not the sort overwhelmingly painful, but after 20 minutes, you will notice it, and eventually — close to the 45 minute mark — you’ll want to take it off.
Given the distance to the screen, you might want to take the Gear VR off every 15-20 minutes, so as to reduce the strain on your nose, but there’s also another part of your body that will feel the strain from wearing the Gear VR, and that’s your eyes.
There is a solution to this, though, and that is to use the head strap that comes across the top of your skull. This extra strap will make the Gear VR headset much more comfortable as the strap pulls the headset closer to your head, not only keeping your eyes in the dark needed to make the headset work, but also taking some of the weight off that nose, so that’s good.
Without the top strap, you’ll find you will get used to the weight over time, but we’d go with the strap. It’s easy to setup, can be removed quickly, and generally makes using the Gear VR comfortable, until you begin to focus too much on the clarity, or lack there of in the balanced sense.
Even though you have a dioptre adjustment wheel to play with, it never really feels like you’ve sharpened the text or visuals to point of perfection, at least not in the way we view without a screen. Some of the information will be sharp — generally in the centre of the lenses, because the outside is where the falloff is — but as you begin to read down and along the edges of the lenses, that is where your eyes will never really feel as if what’s there is in focus.
You get by after a while, though you should try not to focus too much on one thing, relaxing instead. We definitely advise taking breaks because even if you’re comfortable, your eyes will eventually feel the strain, especially as they adjust to real light again.
Some things may stop your viewing dead in its tracks, however, and one of them is heat and battery life.
The heat generated by the Note 4 is one thing that is next to impossible to get past, and we’ve seen it on Google Cardboard before, too, so we suspect this is just one of those things that will be ironed out in time with portable virtual reality headset.
Because the phone is being used as the screen and the computer throwing all of this information on screen, and because the screen is running with a solid amount of brightness and processing videos quickly while running the compass and accelerometer, you’ll find that you’re working the smartphone pretty hard.
As such, it’s not unusual to get a message telling you to stop using the phone because it’s heating up.
In fact, all you really need to do to learn this for yourself is to touch the phone, which will feel mighty toasty. You can get by this screen fairly easily by tapping the touchpad, which will make the message go away, but it will make itself known again and again, and it’s generally better to take it out of the Gear VR and let it cool down as an actual, you know, phone.
The battery is another issue altogether, and while we’re told to expect as much as 3 hours of life, a little over 2 is probably closer to what you’ll get, and that’s with a full battery.
Just like how Google’s Cardboard dents the battery life of phones, Gear VR does the same, and while you might be able to make it all the way through watching Godzilla, Lord of the Rings will probably kill the battery of your phone, especially if you’ve already used the phone and are below 90 percent.
And that’s one of those things you need to remember: there is no battery in the Gear VR, even though there probably should be. We can only imagine how this would add to the weight, which is already heavy enough, but you’re relying solely on the battery in your phone.
That means if you have 100 percent, you might have three hours, maybe, depending on what you’re watching. If you have under that, the time you can use the Gear VR goes down.
Unfortunately, there is no microUSB charge port on the Gear VR (at least not the current one, though it could come later), and if you want to charge the phone to play more content, you’ll need to take it out and charge it up outside of the Gear.
At least Samsung includes a fast charger with the Note 4, so you’ll probably want to use that here.
Gear VR’s final issue is content, and just like how 3D Blu-ray took time to grow, and 4K Ultra HD is taking it’s sweet time to grow beyond the few demo videos and homemade content, virtual reality content is equally stuck in the same “coming soon” section of the tech world.
At the moment, you can find a few “experiences” videos available on the Samsung Oculus store, with one from Coldplay, a Paul McCartney song, a small Cirque du Soleil experience, but it’s still pretty bare. You’ll also find a few small games here and there, with the ones we’ve mentioned joined by a space shooter that relies on your head as an aiming mechanism (Gunner) and a puzzle game disguised as a hacking simulation (Darknet), both of which are surprisingly fun and very immersive.
Samsung’s bizarrely named “Milk VR” service is not available in Australia yet, and while we’ve tested it, there isn’t much in the way of high quality 360 degree videos here either, especially not for the 1440p screen used by the Gear VR.
When this does eventually launch locally, Australians will find a few things waiting for them, but right now, the pickings are pretty slim for something as epic as what the Gear VR can bring.
That said, there’s good news on the horizon, as more companies upload 360 degree videos, including some found in skydiving, car racing, and even basketball from the NBA.
You can, of course, bring your own movies into the Oculus Cinema as we did, and you can even find a few other compatible titles for Oculus 360 videos on the web. We found one shot on a beach in South Australia, but these are huge file, and they raise another point: storage.
While your Note 4 might have gigs of storage, the Gear VR relies on the microSD the unit comes with. Unfortunately, you only get a 16GB microSD card, and a good 13GB is taken up with the demos, leaving you with little space to load with files of your own. Given that 15 minutes of ultra high-res 360 video translates to about a gigabyte per seven or minutes, you’ll find this space eaten into very, very quickly.
From our own filming and testing (because this writer has been working on his own 360 degree video capture system for GadgetGuy), 2.7K videos are wide enough to be high resolution, but 4K UHD works the best, and that means if you want to watch movies that are clear or check out experiences that look and feel lifelike, you will be destroying the space on the included SD card in no time.
Next time, Samsung needs a bigger microSD card in the box, though we found that you could just as easily buy a 64GB microSD ourselves (or higher), move the demo content over without any problems, providing you with enough space for your own movies.
Without a doubt, Samsung’s Gear VR is one of the more intriguing gadgets we’ve seen, not just this year, but ever, and it brings a smile to the face of everyone who tries it.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen virtual reality, mind you, and it won’t be the last, but there are some pretty awesome sauce things that can be done here, and the Gear VR has the potential to change in-flight boredom, time wasting on a bus or train, and general movie watching at home because of what it brings to the table.
It won’t be for everyone, that said, and a high cost of ownership is present if you don’t already own a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, which is a very large phone that fetches near a thousand dollars. If you have one of those, the Gear VR’s $249 tag isn’t much to see something that is ahead of the game, but if not, it’s hard to get someone to pony up over a thousand dollars for this.
Over time, we expect Oculus will bring virtual reality to more people, and when it does, it will likely come with a lower price, working with more than just one phone, with computers set to benefit tremendously.
Right now, though, the Gear VR is one awesome piece of kit, and made for the early adopter that likes to be on the cusp of everything new and exciting.