Samsung's Gear VR Actually Works

This is a photo of our indomitable morning editor Amanda having her first experience with virtual reality. She's renowned in the office for her sardonic wit and deadpan delivery. It's fitting given she's also one of the more cynical when it comes to new films, new games and new tech.

This photo is the most outwardly excited I've seen Amanda since I've known her. And that uninhibited joy: That was the same reaction from everyone else who tried the Gear VR.

But before we go into that, let's cover the basics.


Specifications

When the Gear VR first launched, it was first for Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 phablet. The latest model supports the larger Note 5, but it now looks after the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, along with the recently launched S7 and S7 Edge.

The latest iteration of the headset weighs in at 318g without a smartphone, a fraction lighter than the previous 379g model. The rest is largely unchanged though: A 96 degree field of view, touchpad, back key, volume key, a depth adjuster and three sensors.

The price is a bit cheaper too -- while the previous Gear VR would set you back around $249, the latest model is selling for $159 at most major retailers. That makes it hands down the most affordable headset for those who want a dose of VR. PlayStation's offering costs $549, which doesn't include the cost of the Move controllers, and it'll set you back more than a grand to pick up the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

The Gear VR came free with the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, although you'll have to pay over a grand for either of those. It isn't too far off what the RRP for a new PS4 bundle, PSVR and PS Move controllers would be, and it's still well below what you'd need for the Vive/Rift and decent PC.

There are some important tools under the hood as well -- by holding down the back button, you can view your surroundings through the camera on your phone. Given that it's recommended you sit in a swivel chair or a couch, it's a great way to have your drink and your VR too.


So Why Was Everyone So Surprised?

Part of the problem with virtual reality is that elevator pitch isn't that simple. You can spin the wonders of virtual reality and its practical applications in the sciences, military, health and other sectors to random consumers all day long. But that doesn't explain why VR might be useful for content now. Or why you would want to consume existing content -- movies, games, photos -- in a virtual space.

Gamers are equally sceptical. We like things to run at a certain resolution. We like things to run at a certain frame rate. That's part of the killer for the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift -- they cost too much, not just for the headsets alone but the upgrades most need for their computer.

The Gear VR gets around a lot of that. It seems like a cool toy. As soon as everyone saw it, they wanted to have a go. The technology's incredibly social -- you want to try it out. And even if you aren't immersed yourself, it's fun watching the reactions of those who are.

And for those that are in VR, the performance is impressive. It works. The frame rate holds up. The visuals are better than expected. The whole viewing surface isn't as sharp as the HTC Vive or Rift, but its good enough that everyone who agreed to be my guinea pig enjoyed the experience without trouble.

People with glasses were able to enjoy the Gear VR too. Even my dad, who has strong bifocal glasses, had fun playing EVE: Gunjack despite the difficulties presented with his bi-focal glasses. Eventually he took them off and endured without, although the focus was never precisely right for him.

Still, he was playing a video game and enjoying himself -- and the last time he did that was when he got a Leapmotion controller. And the latency on that was nowhere near as good as modern VR, not even Samsung's entry-level offering.


So It's Comfortable, Then?

Undoubtedly, yes. I couldn't withstand it for long stretches of time, but looking at a screen in VR isn't quite the same as looking at your TV or monitor. Even if you're just sitting in a virtual lounge -- watching a Twitch stream or playing trivia -- you'll be temped to move your head around.

But chances are you won't notice, because most of the made-for-VR apps have a fairly short shelf life. Many of the experiences only run for a few minutes at a time, and many of the games can be digested in short bursts.

Gunjack is effectively a rail-shooter spread out over a series of missions. Endless runners like Temple Run are fairly straightforward; you play them for about as long as you normally would on the train going home. The Oculus Social Trivia game is only 10 multiple-choice questions. And even some of the longer experiences, like the hacking puzzler DarkNet, has a generous half hour-long time limit on the levels. (Which you won't need.)

A few people told me that they forgot they were wearing the Gear VR at all; others said that it was akin to wearing glasses, and therefore something they were comfortable with. Your mileage may vary, although the one consistent factor was amongst those with glasses: It was far easier for them to use the Gear VR without glasses than with.


But What About The Content?

All content for the Gear VR is funnelled through the Oculus Store, and there's a fair few games that have been downscaled or tweaked from their Rift versions to work with the Samsung device. There's an interesting mix of Samsung branded content, with a basic introduction to VR, a game to overcome a fear of public speaking, as well as the standard 360 Photos and Video apps.

The free content is pretty good, although it doesn't last for too long. The Jurassic Park and Marvel Avengers tie-in experiences were hands down the most loved out of everything I tried on people. Quite a few games require a Bluetooth controller, and it isn't as simple as just picking up your PS4 controller and pairing it to the phone.

Fortunately there are plenty of non-controller games and most of the experiences don't require anything bar the touchpad. Ocean Rift was particularly effective, placing you in a pleasant underwater environment where you could swim with a variety of creatures. Titans of Space was an excellent trip through the cosmos that didn't cost a dime, while SONAR was an enjoyable space exploration with a neat ending. And Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a must-have for parties.

Paid apps usually fell within three ranges: $5, $7.50-10 and $15. There was plenty of fun to be had with the free apps, although the Oculus Store suffers from the Netflix problem: There's more content on the US store. But the number of apps for the the Gear VR -- partially thanks to the Rift -- is growing every week, and more and more existing apps are being converted to work with VR as well.


So, Should I Buy One?

If you don't have a compatible phone, no. There's no killer app for the Gear VR, no game or piece of content that will radically change the way you interact with your device.

If you already have a Galaxy S6 or S7, it's a different story altogether. On the surface of it, $159 isn't an insignificant amount of money. And if you don't already consume a substantial amount of content on your smartphone, it's difficult to justify splurging out on something that will be more than a gimmick.

But those wise or fortunate enough to have the latest Galaxy phones, either through their mobile plan or a long-awaited upgrade, are in an enviable position. It's hard to justify not having a Gear VR around, if not for the content then for the entertainment value alone.

Virtual reality isn't going anywhere. And perhaps the analysts were right when they said the mobile market was the technology's best chance of long-term success. The Gear VR won't see to that alone though -- it'll need to support more handsets before that becomes a reality.

But the Gear VR proves mobile VR works. It proves mobile VR can be fun. It isn't the kind of gadget you can't live without, but it's certainly the kind of gadget you can enjoy. And when you see the reactions of your friends and family, seeing the awe and amazement as they fly through space or swim through the oceans, that's all the justification you need.


Comments

    What game is the second screenshot from?! I've only purchased Dead Secret and a couple of other small cheaper games on there but want to try out some more of the $10+ games just not sure where to start. I dont play it much... But its been a while since i played Dead Secret and that was amazing!

      I'm guessing its gunjack - i just dont know whether its worth it - whats the replayability like?

        Am I the only one with a Gear VR?

          I wouldn't think so.
          But you're definitely the only one with a Gear VR who's talking to themselves in the comments. =P

            Hey - when no one else talks to me I feel it's time to create my own dialogue!!!

    I know you can stream PC content to a Gear VR setup, but has anyone tried it out first hand and if so is it actually usable? If so, that would probably provide the 'staying' power of buying a GearVR.

    If I owned a G6/7 and GearVR, I'd probably give rocket league a good thrashing on there for 30 mins a day.

    @fenix yes I have with my S7 Edge. Used program called Trinus. There's a tutorial on how to sync what you're seeing on your monitor to what you're seeing on your Gear setup, the following link will explain how to get it working with GTA5 however same can be applied to most games:

    http://www.vrpill.com/recent-news/how-to-play-grand-theft-auto-5-on-gear-vr/

    I tried it with The Division.... good in theory and looked bloody amazing, but as it's a 3rd person over the shoulder game, didn't work all that well and I kept feeling really disorientated. Yet to experiment with any other games, was going to fire it up for BF4 and have a crack sometime. Framerate wasn't an issue, very smooth provided you have an decent setup.

    Trinus can connect to the Gear VR via USB or WiFi as well.

    -Chris

      Wow that's awesome!
      I'm sure the mobile demos and mild games are decent, but I've been a tech head for so long that I see straight through these 'light experiences'. Knowing that I can broadcast PC content smoothly to the Gear VR would make it a no brainer cheap entry level VR solution. I'm sure I'd probably get similar use out of that experience as I would with PSVR (based on my habits... which is not monster console gaming sessions... am more likely to consume content.... videos, pictures, experiences/vr apps, tech demos, and then games).

      I'm going to look into what's happening in the 'mobile vr for iphone' world... which would hopefully not involve any jailbreaking as thats so 2012 and I cbf with h4x0rz.

        Completely agree. I'm not entirely sold on the full Oculus VR setup at the moment and will wait for more game support and get a feel for how it will work for the games I predominantly play, FPS, before I decide to get in on the action. However the fact I can use the Gear VR to do roughly what the full flavour Oculus does at the moment in order to experiment, is very handy.

        Content consumption is guaranteed, those 3D youtube videos inside fighter jet cockpits are AMAZING. There is another application worthwhile having a look at from the Google Playstore, Package Disabler. Allows you to disable the Gear VR auto launch service (mentioned in the linked article as well) so that it doesn't auto load when you dock your phone with the Gear VR unit. Means that you don't necessarily have to be tied down to the Oculus software in order to do things.

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