I've been playing one of the latest Samsung phones for the last fortnight, precisely for one reason: the Gear VR headset that came with it. Mobile VR is supposedly going to be the actual catalyst for VR to take off in this country, if you listen to analysts. And that makes some sense: it doesn't cost hundreds, or thousands, of dollars.
But the Gear VR isn't a perfect piece of tech, and over the past two weeks I've tried, and failed, to conquer a certain milestone.
That goal: to sit down and watch an entire movie, uninterrupted, in VR.
I set that goal for a few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to see if I'd be comfortable enough sitting in a virtual environment for a couple of hours. What would the experience of being immersed for that long do? Would my eyes begin to tire? Would the focus hold up over an extended period? Would it stay neatly in place over a couple of hours? Would the slight pixelation bug me? Would my ears and face start to get hot? And what about my neck from all that turning?
They're answers I wanted to know, especially if we're moving into a world where VR games will become more ubiquitous. I can't imagine a scenario right now where I'd spend six to eight hours in VR, but then I don't often spend six to eight hours playing games uninterrupted these days either. But there are plenty of things that I do for one, two, or three hours at a time — games, movies, books, TV shows, for instance.
So I wanted to see how VR would hold up.
There's a whole range of experiences, concepts and games, but many of them barely last longer than a few minutes. Some of the more paid games and experiences last longer, such as the $15 EVE: Gunjack, but it's not the kind of content I wanted to spend hours at a stretch with. But I do spend hours at a time watching Netflix — so why not do it in VR?
The Netflix app puts you in a virtual room with a few red couches, a lamp, some windows and posters on the side. You can't move around the physical space, of course. Although the lights do dim when a show or film starts playing, and the effect is quite nice.
I started off by watching short TV episodes. I figured the shorter length was a good primer and if I watched something funny, the humour might also distract me from elements that might sour the experience.
The first thing anyone using a Gear VR needs to know is that even when you have things in perfect focus, it doesn't apply to the entirety of the screen. Things are sharpest when they're directly in the centre of your view. Text and objects on the side will seem slightly blurry, but if you turn your head they'll sharpen.
Depending on what you're doing, it means you might have to get used to experiences and games in VR that are never perfectly focused, because of the amount of detail and action taking place off-centre. In Netflix VR, the viewing space is large enough that the corners of your virtual TV aren't as crisp as what's in the middle.
At the start of Ratatouille, for instance, a lot of the action is largely focused on the centre. But as the movie progresses and the screen begins to fill with more moving objects and more animation, it becomes more noticeable. I never found it physically unpleasant, though.
But what really stopped me from watching an entire in movie was the headset itself. I've had it for a fortnight, but I haven't been able to adjust it in a way where it feels entirely comfortable sitting on my nose.
Others who gleefully agreed to be Gear VR guinea pigs have told me it's akin to wearing glasses. You get used to having that weight on your nose; it's something you just come to terms with.
But I don't wear glasses, and after about half an hour uninterrupted I found myself holding the headset with both my hands to stop me from shifting my head around on a regular basis. That didn't last long though, as holding a device aloft in your hands isn't that much more comfortable either.
I endured the process for another ten minutes, and then took the headset off for a break. You can see the resulting effect on the bridge of my nose.
The slightly bloodshot eyes isn't the fault of the Gear VR, mind you. I just don't get enough sleep.
It's not as if the Gear VR is physically uncomfortable otherwise. It's much lighter than the HTC Vive or the full Oculus Rift, and the Gear VR has one massive advantage that the higher-spec headsets don't have: it's completely tether free.
But it's a bit for naught if you have to stop what you're doing because you can't wear the headset for long periods. And I wasn't the only one. Just about everyone who saw me with the Gear VR — friends, family, colleagues — wanted to try it, and a few of them also had difficulty finding that sweet spot of comfort.
On the bright side, enforced breaks aren't such a bad thing. But for people like me, the prospect of having to wear in your virtual reality headset is enough of a detractor to stop me from being a frequent user.