Every few years, it seems that certain trends become the “in” thing in the mobile and computing space. For the last few years, it was “wearables”, smartwatches etc. Starting last year, and really taking off this year is Virtual Reality. HTC announced their Vive last year, and this year, we shall finally be able to buy it. Google Cardboard has been out for about a year. Playstation VR has just been announced to be released in October 2016. Samsung showed off thier collaboration with Oculus Rift, the Gear VR, last year/. It released it around christmas time, and now is giving everybody who pre-ordered their new S7 and S7 Edge a free Gear VR. With this kind of push, could Gear VR be the first mass adoption of VR? I obtained a unit, and I have been using for the past few weeks.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
I have been using the Gear VR with my Galaxy S6. The device is compatible with the major Samsung phones of 2015 and 2016 (S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+, Note 5, S7, & S7 edge). This has been a bone of contention for many tech bloggers. Google Cardboard is cross-platform, the Gear VR ties you into the Samsung eco-system.
On opening the box, a rather cool looking white and black headset appears. There are adjustable straps and a dial to focus the lenses. On the side is a touchpad with a clickable button. It does look pretty cool.
It is very light and quite comfortable to wear. Part of this is due to what this actually is. Its a “dumb” visor. What that means, in contrast to the HTC Vive, but similar to Cardboard, the computing and power is done by the phone which slots into the micro-usb in the front of the headset. This means that apart from the touchpad, there is very little computing done by the headset. This contributes to the comfortable and light weight. It also helps the cost. £80 standalone is a very competitive price, and its presumably low production costs meant Samsung could give so many away with pre-orders.
It has adjustable straps and is relatively easy to put on or off. As a bloke who wears glasses, it was still easy to use, something other VR sets arent as adept at.
So first off, you need to plug the phone into the headset. This then makes the phone download and install the Oculus VR applications. Subsequently when you plug it into the visor, the phone goes straight into the home screen from which you can go into the different Oculus apps. These include some immersive videos, games, and the ability to see photos and videos off your own device. If the images/videos are in 360 then they will be fully immersive with you standing in the middle of image and as you move your head seeing the different aspects of the image. If they are standard images then its like seeing the content with in front of you but in a VR “frame”. This could be a computer generated cinema hall or movie room, so it would feel like you are “at the movies” whilst being in your own living room. Any notifications (text, calls etc) that your phone is receiving whilst you are using it come through as little notices and there is also a “see-through” mode where you can see through the camera quickly back at the outside world if you want to quickly have a look at something and not go through the rigmarole of taking it off.
Of course there is an Oculus VR apps store where you can buy different apps/videos/games.
When it comes to gaming, it is difficult to assess without the proprietary gamepad, but there are a few games which can be played with the touchpad and which respond to gyroscopic movement (kind of like racing games on your phone) which were pretty cool.
Getting shots of these is quite difficult, but it is very immersive. Sometimes a bit too much! on a rollercoaster video I actually felt disorientated and sick and had to take it off. However generally its very well tolerated and a good way to watch (non-360) movies and TV shows with nothing interrupting your field of vision. Finally the use-case for the 4K phone becomes apparent. Even with the fantastic 2K screens on the available devices, you can still see pixels. Anything lower (1080p for example) would probably not be good enough to get a good experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if the the next Note is 4K anyway, but this would a compelling contributory factor for that decision.
The first time you use it, frankly its breathtaking. Now is that because i’ve had a sheltered life in the north of England? Maybe. But the coolness and enjoyment factor of this cant be overestimated. All members of my family from by boys to my 65yr old mother loved using the device. As more and more apps become available, i expect the experience to get even better
Once you take it off, the device does seem to understand that and will pause the content you are seeing/doing.
A word of warning though, as mentioned all the heavy lifting is done by the phone, this means that the phone often gets quite hot, now I’ve not had the phone overheat/throttle/switch off, but reports of that happening are around on the internet. The battery life of the S6 especially isn’t stellar, and it is possible to run through the entire battery in about 2 hours in the headset.
Samsung are really pushing this device. Arguably the decision to stay with micro-usb on the S7 devices rather then USB-C was to make sure there was compatibility with the Gear VR. This is not an insignificant decision by Samsung, a company which is always aiming to be at the fore-front of the spec war.
The decision to make it Samsung-only is one which has grated with people. However this is a business about making money, and Samsung have invested a lot into this tech and its probably not surprising they want to maximise their returns. They are also the biggest Android manufacturer and so its not as if they are making this a niche device.
It seems that VR sits at the two extremes of of price. The HTC Vive is at one end, having being announced at £799, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, Google Cardboard can be had for about a tenner. In between lies the Samsung Gear VR (£80). This isn’t a disposable amount, however it’s cheap enough to be something that its very accessible for those interested, but not willing to spend the big money on the immersive sets from HTC. This is clearly an early product, but the coolness factor and the sheer joy when you start using it made me realise that we do now have the technology to make VR a massive thing. This could be the device that makes VR go mainstream, and whilst it has its foibles, its an impressive start by Samsung. Recommended