There was a time when VR was the next step in the way humans would interact with a computer, and then it became an entertainment gimmick, relegated to sit with other failed entertainment gadgets that no one has a use for (paging Aibo).
But VR appears to be back, with Oculus leading the way and Samsung joining forces with the VR heavy company to make something truly innovative for the mobile entertainment market.
It’s called “Gear VR,” and for Samsung, it’s an attempt to make your mobile phone more than just your go-to gadget for phone calls, texting, emails, calendar, and the works, with Gear VR quite literally making it your world.
“It’s an experience no one ever wants to miss out on,” said Steve Zagari, Samsung’s Steve Zagari, pictured below.
The gadget is similar to some of the headsets we’ve seen in the past, with a headset contraption that you will understandably wear on your head and see other worlds inside.
But unlike other currently commercially available headsets, the Gear VR includes a head tracker, tacking advantage of sensors to let you look around the 3D world.
It’s also a little different from other headsets because it doesn’t use its own screen, relying instead on your own screen brought with you from your phone.
That’s quite a logical step when you think about it, as if you store movies on your phone to watch on the plane or the bus, you can opt instead to watch them in a headset by connecting the phone to the headset and viewing them there.
When you connect the phone to the headset, it’s not like you’re throwing a screen next to your eyes. That would be silly, and not at all accurate.
Rather, there are two lenses with focal adjustment provided on the unit, making it possible for your eyes to focus on the screen and emulating the feel of either a massive screen in front of you, or complete immersion in a world.
At the launch this week, we tested two of the demos, with one being a cinema showing a movie trailer, and the other being local content of sitting in water and being consumed by a shark.
Yes, we know what we wrote/said.
For the cinema demo, this isn’t just a movie in your face. No, this is a movie theatre, with leather seats around you complete with cupholders, the tacky stucco ceiling boards and old air conditioning events, the light flickering of a movie projector behind you, and the glow of the movie screen up ahead even as it throws extra light onto the floor, almost as if you were there.
It’s a seriously cool concept, and while you’re not represented by an avatar — a fact that is noted by the fact that if you look down, you’re invisible — it’s still a mesmerising experience, with quick 3D tracking to let you really look around.
You can’t yet move forward in the demo — we guess your seat in the middle will have to do, but rather than show a big screen in front of you, this feels more like going out and watching a movie than jamming the movie into your cerebrum.
Total immersion is a different concept altogether, and while the cinema demo let us watch a movie with the belief we were in movie cinema, Samsung’s locally produced shark experience is a different beast.
Quite literally, there is a different beast.
The footage was a little grainy, but the idea easy to get across, with a deep blue ocean all around you, surrounded by lots of swimming fish, and coral underneath. You can look around you and follow the fish, seeing what they’re swimming away from as a shark begins to approach, and you can even look up, sewing the sun beating down on the water with a boat up above.
But because this isn’t interactive, you’ll find yourself eaten by the shark at one point, and even see what it’s like to go in the mouth of the beast, right before he decides to swallow you.
It’s an entertaining experience, though one that we could see would be dizzy to others, especially since it is very immersive, even if it is a touch grainy.
How the Gear VR is doing this is with the magic of that little initialise, VR, or “virtual reality,” whereby two screens are shown on the mobile phone, one for the left eye and the other for the right eye.
The idea isn’t a new one, but has had a recent resurgence as Oculus — now owned by Facebook — has picked up speed working on its Oculus Rift VR headsets, with Samsung now collaborating on the effort.
While the Rift is more or less made for PCs — and can currently only be ordered in a pre-production state mostly intended for developers — Samsung is ready with its half-step, the Gear VR, a product that takes the experience of VR and applies it to a mobile phone screen, or specifically, the Galaxy Note 4.
With a resolution of 2560×1440 across its 5.7 inch panel, the Gear VR can exhibit two 720p screens, one for each eye, showing both left and right on the screen at the same time and letting the Gear VR’s lenses amplify and focus this for your eyes.
The Gear VR will also include touchpads to let you control the action when the experience is interactive, and we’re even told there’s a camera pass through operating at 60 frames per second, which at one point could let you experience movies and games while seeing out the phone at the back, which will stop you from missing the stop on your train line, we’re sure.
Overall, we’re very impressed, and while Samsung normally builds a good product, both Oculus and Samsung have worked together to build a seriously capable and creative first-generation product, which will have access to more apps, games, and movies from the online Oculus store later in the year.
Of particular note is the price, which is actually surprising at $249 when it comes to retailers in November.
That said, you will need a Galaxy Note 4 and only a Galaxy Note 4, so if you’re thinking of jumping on the VR bandwagon and can’t wait for the Oculus Rift or want something a little more mobile, pay attention, because you’ll need both to play.