Virtual reality is the future. You can't deny that, after the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive and the LG G3 VR and Google Cardboard all sparked excitement and widespread wonder upon their announcements. But VR is, at the moment, by and large an experience confined to your home and to your gaming PC. But not if you happen to possess a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Samsung's Gear VR is a hell of a lot of fun, for not many people.
What Is It?
- Compatibility: Samsung Galaxy Note 4
- Field Of View: 96 degrees
- Speaker/Headphones: No
- Controls: Touchpad, depth adjuster
- Inputs: 1x microUSB (Note 4 only)
- Weight: 379 grams
The $249 Samsung Gear VR is a virtual reality headset designed specifically for Samsung's own Galaxy Note 4 phablet -- although there's a new Gear VR coming for the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, too. That means you'll have to already be a Note 4 owner to appreciate and actually use the Gear VR, for what it's worth, or make an additional $999 investment on the headset's $249 asking price.
The Gear VR is a headset, but not a helmet -- like the Oculus Rift in all its various iterations, the Gear VR is primarily a very fancy pair of glasses. With the straps adjusted to best fit your head, slip the Gear VR down over your forehead and onto your eyes and you'll enter a world of virtual reality sitting in front of your face... when you have the Galaxy Note 4 clipped into place behind the translucent blue perspex shield, at least.
The body of the Gear VR is vaguely reminiscent of an oversized, high-end pair of snowboarding goggles. There's a soft foam-padded section around the face-side segment, but otherwise the Gear VR is almost all matte white and matte black plastic. Centred in the headset is two large glass Fresnel lenses -- and it's these that turn the Galaxy Note 4's 5.7-inch display into a 96-degree wide field-of-view virtual screen in front of your face. And, of course, the various gyroscopes and accelerometers in the Gear VR and Note 4 work together to move the image that you're looking at whenever you turn your head.
It's a very simple device, surprisingly so, which makes it almost anticlimactic to take out of the box for the first time. With padded leatherette on the white plasticised parts of the vertical and horizontal straps of the headset, You get the Gear VR in an oversized hard carry case, with space enough for you to store and transport the virtual reality headset along with a smartphone, battery pack and a compact pair of headphones. Also bundled is a microfibre cleaning cloth and a 16GB microSD card with a SD reader. That microSD card carries a bunch of super-high-res panoramas and 360-degree videos for you to view in the Gear VR's Oculus-developed and -branded companion app.
What's It Good At?
The setup process for the Gear VR, despite it being a pretty high-tech piece of equipment, is really simple. Plug your Note 4 into the Gear VR, unplug it to tap the button to start installing apps, log into (or create) your Oculus account, and you're ready to go. From that point, whenever you clip the Note into the VR again, the appropriate apps launch automatically and you do all your controlling and navigating by looking around and tapping away at the touchpad on the right side of the headset. The process of navigating by swiping the trackpad, then looking around, too, is really simple and makes a lot of sense -- it actually just works.
The virtual reality element, too, is great. You definitely do get a sense of being elsewhere when you strap on the Gear VR, in the same way that I experienced when I tried the original Oculus Rift. A lot of that elsewhereness comes from the Gear VR's extremely high resolution courtesy of the Note 4's excellently high-res display and OLED contrast, but it's also just really otherwordly incredible to look around and see a world around you that isn't actually there. The virtual reality element isn't perfect, because the Note's screen only refreshes at 60Hz and there's still a small amount of pixelation, but crucially any instance of motion blur is perfectly dealt with and doesn't exist as an issue worth mentioning.
Packed in you get some stuff like extremely hi-res panoramas of Mars and the bottom of the ocean and major cities, even a few spots in Chernobyl. Also there are some 360 videos that take you over New Zealand and New York City, and there’s a 3D-rendered ad Samsung did for the World Cup. Though the Note 4 is a powerful phone, it will never be able to replicate the horsepower of a gaming PC. So it's mostly a vehicle for watching TV shows and movies as if you were in the cinema, through the aptly named Oculus Cinema app.
There are some fun, if transitory, games that you can play on the Gear VR as well. Oculus does all the software for Gear VR so the thought is that a lot of the games and demos you can find on the official Oculus library of cool shit will make their way to Gear VR too. A Note 4 is no gaming PC, and Rift demos aren’t automatically able to run on mobile, but plenty of games and demos -- especially ones that use the everyday, accessible Unity game engine -- are super easy to port over, as long as the Note 4 can handle them.
It’s also worth reiterating that this version of Gear VR isn’t technically meant to be a consumer product. Like the Oculus Rift dev kits, Gear VR is an “innovator edition.” It’s for people who want to make Gear VR games, and also those lucky few who are into buying beta VR headsets. Although it’s still being sold pretty much the same as a consumer product would be, it’s important to know going in that this is a nascent category. And unfortunately, Gear VR’s prediliction to auto-boot Oculus Home when you slap the Note 4 in means that you can’t use it to check out Google Cardboard apps when you get bored. There’s probably a clever way around that or a hidden setting somewhere, but I haven’t managed to find it yet.
What's It Not Good At?
The Gear VR presented a perfect opportunity for Samsung to integrate a high-quality pair of powered noise-cancelling earphones or headphones that were built into the headset or straps of the unit itself. Don't get me wrong, most users of the Gear VR will likely have their own headphones in the first place -- since the Gear VR is basically a bit of a novelty product at the moment -- but it's a bit disappointing not to see some kind of audio output included, and the little speaker inside the Note 4 is facing the wrong way when it's plugged into and operating the headset. For what it's worth, Bluetooth is almost a mandatory inclusion here if you're picking out headphones especially-- the fewer cords and cables you have to deal with, the better.
At the moment, the amount of content available for the Gear VR is minimal at best. The Oculus 360 videos are great, and the Oculus Cinema app is a genuinely novel and cinematic and really fun way to watch a movie on your Note 4, and there are a few games to pass the time with -- but they're not especially serious.
The biggest is probably that using it will chew through your battery and there’s no way to use Gear VR and have your phone plugged in at the same time. The idea is that this is supposed to be a mobile VR unit (use it on a plane maybe? I’d try that, sure) so Samsung doesn’t even want to give you the option of tethering to a wall. The downside is that you can get a few hours of use out of a single charge at best. I clocked three hours and 20 minutes in Oculus Cinema (I was not wearing the set the whole time) before the Note 4 gave out. So that’s like one movie and a TV episode, tops. Also, the Note 4 got hot as hell over the course of those three hours.
Also I’m not sure I’d want to wear Gear VR for three straight hours, anyway. Gear VR is pretty comfortable, as far as a headset goes -- it’s a little heavy, but the over-the-top headstraps support it pretty well. That and the face cushioning is, well, cushy. It beats the hell out of Google Cardboard (duh) but I can’t compare it directly to using an Oculus for hours on end as I’ve only been lucky enough to try those for a few minutes at a time. The Gear VR will leave you with telltale (and temporary) red marks on your nose if you use it for more than like 5 minutes at a stretch, though. Totally worth it, though.
Should You Buy It?
The $249 Gear VR is very expensive if you don't already have a Galaxy Note 4, but really not that pricy if you already do. By that token, it's probably a niche product, and largely a novelty. That means I can be a little forgiving of its less-than-extensive catalogue of videos and panoramas and games. There's no getting around the fact that using the Gear VR is a very cool experience -- it does virtual reality very, very well -- but at the same time it's not a device that you can use every day for a long period of time like you could a pair of headphones or a smartphone or a tablet.
Samsung has done one amazing thing with the Gear VR and that's to prove that a smartphone -- the bigger the better, the more powerful it is and the more detailed its screen -- can successfully power a virtual reality headset and can deliver some genuinely amazing virtual reality experiences. As these smartphones get more powerful, the experiences will become more diverse and more exciting and more commonplace. Because the Gear VR is essentially an add-on for the Galaxy Note 4, it makes VR a lot more accessible to the everyday user who doesn't have or want an Oculus Rift and high-powered gaming PC and the space to store all these things.
I predict some pretty impressive things will happen when Samsung launches the Galaxy S6 and its Gear VR variant; until then the Gear VR for the Galaxy Note 4 remains a very fun piece of technology, albeit one with a relatively limited set of uses for a relatively limited set of users. That doesn't change the fact that I have genuinely passed a couple of hours just mucking around and watching movies on a weekend -- when I'm not being paid to -- with the Gear VR.