Google Cardboard's smartphone VR is a cool trick, but Samsung has just announced a rig that shows just how legit smartphone virtual reality can be. Gear VR is like an Oculus Rift with a brain you can fit in your pocket, and it's pretty incredible.
Just like the rumours suggested, Samsung's Gear VR is a phone-powered headset that works exclusively with the new Galaxy Note 4 and comes by way of a partnership with Oculus itself. In practice, it's a lot like Google Cardboard but comfier, with a strap, and designed so that it will only work with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, thanks to the shape of the hardware and some exclusive software from Oculus. Samsung's VR headset is not unlike the Durovis Dive, or similar smartphone-masks. But Gear VR is so much more than the sum of its parts.
For starter there's that screen. The Note 4 has a bonkers screen. With a 2560 x 1440 resolution on a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display, the Note 4's screen hits an astronomical 515 PPI. That's dumb high, second only to LG's G3. It's also higher than the display in the (fantastic) Oculus Rift DK2, which actually uses a re-purposed 386 PPI Note 3 display. The +100 jump in PPI makes for a screen that looks fantastically high quality — the best VR screen I've laid eyes on so far — but it's not quite perfect yet. There's still a very noticeable "screen door effect" where you can see edges of black around the pixels. It's not damning or anything, but it's still very noticeable, just about as noticeable as it is on the Oculus Rift DK2.
Of course what makes the Oculus Rift DK2 great is more than just the number of pixels in its display; it's the "low persistence" screen refreshing, a software trick that makes use of an AMOLED screen's high refresh rate to imperceptibly black-out certain pixels while your head is in motion. It's a trick that kills motion blur and generally clears up pesky nausea problems. Samsung's representatives couldn't say whether the use of this tech was part of Samsung's deal with Oculus, but there's hardly any motion blur with the Gear VR headset — way less than with Project Morpheus or any Google Cardboard setup — so it seems very, very likely that it is.
As for the headset itself, Gear VR has a few little flourishes to help it stand out from the strap-a-phone-to-your-face crowd. First among them is perhaps the focus dial on the top of the headset. Just twist the dial left or right until it looks pretty. It's hands-down the easiest time I've ever had bringing a VR screen into focus, compared to say, the Oculus Rift DK II's independent lenses. On the side, you'll also find a volume rocker as well as a small touchpad, and a back button so you don't have to pop the whole thing apart or have a controller paired in order to do basic things like navigate menus.
In fact, if you hold down the back button, the Gear VR will switch the feed from whatever game you are playing or video you are watching to a stream from the phone's camera, so you can take a quick glimpse at the real world without having to rip the whole headset off.
Moreover though, the whole thing is very comfortable. It's well padded in the straps and around the eyes, and struck me as being particularly light. You won't forget it's there or anything, but it's far from heavy. It also helps that it's not tethered to anything by cables, although its design also makes it impossible to charge your Note 4 while using it, which could be a bit of a drag if you want to play some VR games and then, say, leave the house for a while and take your phone with you.
In practice, Gear VR just looks and works great. There's not a whole lot to try it out with right now, but I watched a bit of 3D Coldplay concert footage, and took a very guided tour of a CG version of Tony Stark's lab, both of which were good enough to give me small bursts of that "Wow wait where am I really" feeling. The 515 PPI panel plus minimal motion blur makes this pretty much the best VR setup you can lay eyes on right now.
It's kind of nuts how fast this is all moving, and that the headset that blew my mind back in January of this year is already being trumped in large part by a phone. There are a few places where Oculus still holds superiority though. Gear VR can't do any sort of upper-body tracking, so you're relegated to being a head on a stick with no ability to lean in. That lean — which Gear VR could maybe accommodate later somehow — is a huge factor of what makes the Rift DK2 feel so immersive, so in that way Gear VR is still behind.
Gear VR will also eventually run into the limits of mobile processing power. The Note 4's 2.7 Ghz Snapdragon 805 brain is no slouch, but the games that look best on the Oculus Rift can give powerful graphics cards a run for their money; rendering a scene for two eyes is tough. So while Gear VR will be great for videos and more mobile-focused games, it will never be quite as serious as a devoted, non-phone-powered, VR headset.
Gear VR is slated to be available sometime later this year, with no word on price yet. And while it would probably be a little overkill to go out and get a Note 4 just for using it as a VR headset, Gear VR is nothing less than awesome and one hell of a selling point for anyone who might be considering the Note 4 already. Of course, the real question is what kind of insane screens did Samsung give to Oculus in exchange for their know-ho? Yes, phone-powered VR is awesomer than it's ever been, but there's still way more in store for VR.