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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Knowing what the Gear VR does, it’s time to don it, and if you can believe it, we’re actually playing with the third version of this hardware this year.
Up until this time, Samsung’s Gear VR has been a concept and project for the early adopters and developers out there, affording each group the chance to experience a technology ahead of the curve and possibly make something for it.
As such, its price and design, as well as the requirements, have been less than palatable for most people, with the former ranging from $249 to $299 not including the phone — and having pretty specific needs on that front — while the latter was large, bulky, and tended to remind you of a B-grade science fiction movie.
Those pretty specific needs were a major limiting factor for people to try the technology out, too, with the original Gear VR that arrived early 2015 requiring 2014’s Galaxy Note 4 handset and only working with that phone, while the mid-year Gear VR needed a Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge and only worked with those handsets.
Without these phones, the Gear VR was useless, basically resembling a plastic shell with lenses and microUSB plugs, and that’s partly why the old models were labeled with “innovator edition”, because innovators and early adopters were the market Samsung was going for.
Now, though, it wants everyone, and so the design has been tweaked, the price has dropped, and the general feeling is that the late-2015 Samsung Gear VR is about as close to a consumer-grade virtual reality product that we’re going to see ahead of next year when more of these gadgets are set to come out.
But hey, at least Samsung can say it was first. Now is it any good?
Grab the headset and remove the rear cover, and you’ll find a device that has much less plastic than we’ve previously seen. Indeed, this is a Gear VR on a diet, and that’s a good thing.
This isn’t like the smartphone race where thinner and lighter are better for reasons of superiority and competitiveness.
No, this is about something you’re going to wear, and something that will push down on the bridge of your nose. The lighter it is, the more weight it can take from your phone, and these factors have to all be light enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s crushing your skull, your nose, and giving you a headache in the process.
For the gen 3 Gear VR, it’s quite clear Samsung has been tweaking and scaling back the plastic, slimming everything down in such a way that this is now less ornate and out there, and more just a holder for something that can lead to bigger things.
The plug at the bottom has also changed, and this is for the better. Now there is a little push mechanism that can let you switch between the regular sized phones of the S6 and S6 Edge (setting B) or the big phones of the S6 Edge+ and Galaxy Note 5 (setting A), meaning you’re not locked into buying sort of phone in order to use the Gear VR, something that was basically holding back the previous designs.
Will this design work with the Galaxy S7 phones? Time will tell on that one, but we’ll hazard a guess that because Samsung knows what its design is going to be by now, since we’re expecting announcement in February, it should at least make it semi compatible. We’ll just have to wait and see.
For now, worry about the phone you can buy, and that means any of the S6 models or a Note 5, the latter of which we’re using for our review.
Load the phone into the slot and push it into the Gear VR microUSB plug, and it already feels like the phone holder has been tightened up, with a positioning that is harder to get wrong.
You will want to unlock the phone before you do it, so if you have a fingerprint lock in place, unlock the phone, otherwise it will just switch on the voice-to-text and tell you that in spoken terms.
From here, Samsung’s Oculus software will load up providing you a grid-like interface for you to browse apps from.
You can actually install apps outside of here, with the Oculus app on the smartphone allowing you to nab them from the smartphone, but inside the interface works just as well, even if looking at descriptions and images is a little more clumsy. You can also play the apps, loading videos in the Oculus Video cinema, which now includes an ant cinema with the videos playing handily on a Samsung phone, while the 360 degree videos and photos are also provided.
Apps and games have also been released in time for the third generation Gear VR, and two of them are standouts, though they do cost money.
“Land’s End” is worth a look (above), providing a light on colour and graphics take on the adventure genre, asking you to pretty much move objects with your mind and walk do small puzzles, while “EVE: Gunner” (below) is a fun on-rails shooter where you just aim your head and fire a gun at spaceships. Easy.
There are other games in the system, and while most don’t require a game pad, some will, which means you’ll want to check the specs before you download.
Apps are also here, and while most are experiences, Samsung does have an internet browser that works, allowing you to surf a mobile web inside of the helmet.
For the most part, though, the experience is pretty solid, with a high definition experience allowing you to explore a digital world.
Where the Gear VR goes a little awry is with regards to picture quality, with most videos streamed to the device. As such, video experiences can be rendered a little blocky, making it difficult to have a proper immersion.
Others can be downloaded altogether, and you get the feeling that with a movie store in the Oculus video menu — a menu that merely says “coming soon” — Samsung and Oculus will be doing more in this area shortly.
Another catch with the Gear VR is that while it has been put on a diet, it can still hurt the bridge of your nose, eventually giving you a headache.
By the time that happens, it’s likely almost two hours will have passed, and in that time, your phone will have heated up quite dramatically, bordering on running out of power. Fortunately, there’s a microUSB port at the bottom of the headset to keep charging the phone, but your head may need a little more time.
Foggy lenses is also something that can still happen, because when it’s warm outside or slightly humid — or your face is a little hotter than it should be — the lenses inside still go a little foggy.
That’s nothing a quick wipe down can’t resolve, but it’s still worth noting all the same.
Despite the few small catches, we’re already entranced with the Gear VR, with the gadget offering a fair amount of promise for the future for not too much cash.
The entry level sub-$200 price makes it worth looking at especially if you have a Samsung phone from this year, even if the company still has some tweaking to be made, with the next model likely shedding even more weight.
If you’re interested in the idea of virtual reality, though, Samsung’s Gear VR is definitely worth a look, not just because there’s no other way to find properly immersive apps, games, and experiences, but because it’s one of the best ways to try it until 2016 rocks up.