January 3, 2016 11:00am
One of the most significant challenges in covering virtual reality is finding the correct words to describe the experience. It’s the perfect confluence of our real and digital lives.
VR puts you inside a digital landscape, giving a 360-degree view of the virtual world around you. When your head moves in the real world, it also moves in the virtual one, a simultaneous perspective. To really understand what virtual reality brings to gaming, communication and video, the technology needs to be experienced first-hand.
When the Oculus Rift first emerged on Kickstarter in early 2013, I dismissed the concept of virtual reality as a passing fad, something I’d never be interested in. It was 3D television technology reincarnated. At the time, the idea of strapping a screen to my face seemed like another gimmick. Didn’t the industry already fail to create next-generation VR headsets back in the 90s?
But it wasn’t until I actually placed a virtual reality headset on my face for the first time that I realized the technology’s potential and how it’s poised to change the future of how we experience the digital world.
I’ve tried almost every upcoming virtual reality headset: HTC’s Vive, PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, and most recently, Samsung’s Gear VR, a device I initially passed off as a smartphone manufacturer cashing in on emerging technology.
While every VR headset has impressed me in some respect, my initial reaction to Samsung’s Gear VR was resoundingly negative. I don’t know if it was the circumstances under which I tried the headset – a busy convention centre bustling with thousands of people – or the lacklustre demo I was thrown into, but I walked away from my first experience with the Gear VR feeling underwhelmed.
But I was wrong; Gear VR is the real deal. Samsung’s experimental VR headset has various flaws, but if you’re looking for an affordable, entry-level VR experience that gives you an idea of what the technology’s future holds, Gear VR is a significant improvement over Google’s often disappointing Cardboard VR. Just make sure you have the right smartphone; you’ll need a Galaxy S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+ or Note 5.
The top entry level VR headset
Samsung’s Gear VR is the first major virtual reality headset to hit the market and has a lot to prove to the average consumer. The Gear VR is going to be many people’s first experience with virtual reality, which means even Samsung’s competitors in the space have a lot riding on its success.
While the fact that the Gear VR is only compatible with four smartphones, all of which are made by Samsung, is disappointing, from a hardware perspective this decision makes sense. Because Samsung knows exactly which smartphones can be used with the Gear VR, the company is able to optimize the headset for its four flagship phones.
This means the Gear VR’s head tracking capability is exceptionally responsive and that its resolution is always a consistent 2560 x 1440 pixels. In comparison, Google Cardboard is designed to work with almost all Android smartphones, which often leads to resolution related issues and lacklustre head tracking. However, it’s important to point out that most Gear VR games still look pixelated, but this is to be expected given the fact that the Gear is powered by a high-end smartphone.
Samsung claims the Gear VR is only compatible with three controllers: the Samsung El-GP20 gamepad, Moga’s Pro Power, and Steel Series’ Android controller. Unlike most Android manufactures, Samsung has a history of selecting exclusive partners when it comes to accessory compatibility. This strategy is difficult to defend given Android’s typically open nature, especially when some of the Gear VR’s best gaming offerings require a controller in order to not feel like a chore to play. Games like Anshar Wars 2 and Omega Agent are great examples of this issue.
However, with a little bit of tweaking I was able to get Steel Series’ Nimbus Apple TV controller and 8Bitdo’s NES30 Pro Android gamepad to work with the Gear VR. It’s unclear exactly how many Bluetooth gamepads are compatible with it, but I had some success with at least a few third-party controllers.
Without a gamepad, many games rely on the Gear VR’s side touch controls for navigation. The touch panel is adequate for navigating menus and performing simple in-game actions, but is frustratingly inaccurate when playing most video games.
The main reason the Gear VR offers a worthwhile experience at launch is its already robust Oculus-powered app store. What this means is a number of apps and games, some that are destined for releases on higher-end VR devices in the future, but have been modified to work within Gear VR’s technical limitations, are already available on Samsung’s headset in some form.
This allows developers to test the virtual reality waters and experiment with various concepts, while still charging money for their titles and pushing the technology forward. This is why the Oculus/Samsung partnership was forged in the first place; both parties benefit from the agreement. Samsung gets access to a comprehensive app store and Oculus is able to promote virtual reality mindshare, hopefully convincing Gear VR owners to purchase their more powerful Oculus Rift when it is released in early 2016.
While not every Gear VR app or game is worth downloading, the headset already has a wide range of software available for it. In the gaming space, titles that are easy to control and rarely use the Gear VR’s side touch panel, which quickly becomes tiring since it requires your arm to be raised at all times, generally offer the best experience. Games like Temple Run VR, a Gear title that gives the player a first-person perspective of Temple Run’s gameplay, as well as Smash Hit, a first person VR version of its Android/iOS counterpart, are great examples or virtual reality ports done correctly.
Ustwo’s Land’s End, a game that offers players a relaxing puzzle experience reminiscent of the studios’ critically acclaimed Monument Valley, and Steel Crate Games’ Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a game that tasks the player and a co-operative companion with defusing a bomb in virtual reality, are other impressive examples of what virtual reality is capable of in the realm of gaming. These are two must-have Gear VR titles worth checking out. Another game worth mentioning is CCP Games’ Eve Gunjack, a title that’s a clear indicator of what players should expect from Oculus Rift launch title, Eve Valkyrie.
Video is an area where the Gear VR surprised me the most. While I’ve experienced 360 degree video in the past with other VR headsets – video that allows the viewer to turn their head and view the world around them – Gear VR offers a number of unique experiences. Gone, a TV show-like mini-series from the creators of The Walking Dead, about a mother looking for her daughter, is one of the best examples of VR video content available on Samsung’s surprisingly robust video store, Milk VR. Other Milk VR content includes music videos, underwater exploration experiences, and watching LeBron James train in VR, which is significantly more fascinating than it sounds.
Other notable Gear VR apps include chat application VTime, which allows Gear VR users to talk to other players in virtual reality (this is a surreal experience), and Samsung’s VR web browser application.
Virtual reality is the future and you should care about it
Gear VR is the most accessible and best way to get into VR today and is poised to continue to be in the future. Its Oculus-powered app store is robust and there are already dozens of applications worth checking out. Its downsides, such as the fact that you need to own a Galaxy S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+ or Note 5, as well as its limited computational power screen, are outweighed by the Gear VR’s tremendous ability to show people what VR is capable of.
Over the holidays I’ve handed the Gear VR to various friends and family members, given them a brief explanation on how the technology works, adjusted its lenses to ensure they are in focus (you can actually use Gear VR without glasses), and then booted up Milk VR’s Jurassic World 360-degree demo. Every single person who tried Gear VR, many who were original skeptical about the technology’s potential, walked away impressed with what it is capable of, especially the fact that it’s powered by a smartphone.
Above all else, I think this alone is the most solid indicator of virtual reality’s future potential and why the Gear VR is extremely important to its longterm success.
The Samsung Gear VR headset is available for $139.99.