Virtual reality is fast approaching, and Samsung has officially jumped into the fray, unveiling its own virtual reality headset called “Gear VR.”
Developed in collaboration with the Oculus VR team, the same company Facebook bought for $US2 billion, the Gear VR looks a lot like an Oculus Rift headset that’s been painted white.
But there’s a huge difference that sets the Gear VR apart from the Oculus Rift.
While the Oculus Rift will rely on a PC as its source of power, the Gear VR is powered by Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 4 smartphone, meaning you can only use the device if you’ve slotted the smartphone into the front of the headset.
Here’s how the Note 4 looks placed inside the Gear VR, once the faceplate has been removed.
It’s an important design choice that differentiates the Gear VR from the Oculus Rift, but it has its own benefits and drawbacks.
On one hand, basing the headset around a mobile device removes the need for a power cord and cable running to an outside computer, and the result is an extremely portable headset that you could feasibly take with you on the go. You simply snap off the front faceplate, slot the Note 4 into place, close things up, and you’re all set.
Interestingly enough, there’s actually no display within the Gear VR itself. The headset relies on the screen from the Note 4 to bring the experience to life, and the Note 4’s battery for power (Samsung said you can expect about 2 hours of Gear VR time). Thankfully, the Note 4’s stunning 2560 by 1400 display offers the sharpest virtual reality display we’ve ever seen, easily outmatching the current Oculus Rift developer kits in its resolution.
Getting virtual reality right isn’t only about resolution, however, and a large part of VR’s magic lies in the ability to track your head within a virtual environment, which enables you to gaze up, down, and behind you as if you’re truly looking around another world.
The Gear VR features head tracking so you can look around, and I didn’t notice any stuttering or screen tearing as I looked around in the games I tried.
The head-tracking may be on par with the Oculus Rift developer kits I’ve tried, but the Gear VR is missing the full positional tracking to account for when you lean forward or peek your head out from behind a corner. It may seem like a minor exclusion, but when you’re trying to trick your brain into believing a virtually-rendered world, every little aspect counts.
Samsung sees the Gear VR as more than just a gaming device, however, and you can expect experiences ranging from travel, to film, to music and concerts. And, of course, games.
In my time using the Gear VR, I witnessed a Coldplay performance from the band’s perspective, toured Marvel’s headquarters and tried on Iron Man’s helmet, and flew through space while controlling my own fighter ship in “Escape Velocity.”
The resolution was crisp, the head-tracking smooth, and the feeling of immersion was strong, but certain experiences were more compelling than others.
For example, experiencing a Coldplay concert from the viewpoint of a band member was interesting, but the realistic setting and people actually works against the immersiveness of the device in many ways, and I found it was easier to believe a fully virtual world rather than recorded real-world event.
You control the Gear VR using a touchpad built-in to the side of the headset and a back button located above the trackpad.
It’s a simple control system that may end up being too simple.
Take, for example, “Escape Velocity,” a game which put me in control of a space fighter facing off against a swarm of other spacecraft. By tapping the touchpad, I was able to fire missiles at oncoming spacecraft, and turning was controlled by swiveling left and right in the office chair beneath me. It worked well enough, but it felt more like a demo on rails than a game I’d want to play for hours, and due to the limited input, I couldn’t help but think I should holding a controller or gesturing with my hands instead.
But it’s important to note that the Gear VR represents a different, more accessible form of virtual reality. It may not be the all-encompassing VR experience that the Oculus Rift is aiming for, but Samsung’s use of the Oculus mobile platform will expand VR’s reach, even if it’s technically different hardware.
When it eventually arrives, the Oculus Rift will require powerful gaming PCs to experience cutting edge virtual environments and gameplay, while the Gear VR will simply use the Note 4’s weaker smartphone processor.
And while smartphone chips are quickly catching up to PCs, they still aren’t anywhere near the power of modern gaming PCs, which just means that Samsung and Oculus’ headsets will meet different needs.
Oculus will continue to lead the push into the boundaries of what VR is capable of, but the cost of building a gaming PC powerful enough to run modern games in full 3D at a high resolution will prove to steep a barrier of entry for many. But for the more casual, less graphically intense games, the Gear VR will be a great introduction to VR, and the portability alone will make it an easy purchase for Note 4 owners.
If the Rift will revolutionise PC gaming, the Gear VR could very well revolutionise mobile gaming. If you think about it, the Gear VR is the only smartphone accessory out there that takes advantage of the ever-increasing hardware specs and leverages it into an experience that most people have never seen. That’s a lot of powerful potential.
So when can you get your hands on a Gear VR?
Unfortunately, there’s no release date or pricing on the Gear VR yet, but a Samsung spokesperson said the company was targeting a fall release.