Smartphones, by and large, are made to be held in your hand and looked down upon and tapped away at with your thumbs. Virtual reality headsets are amazing, but they're usually strapped to your head and tied down to a powerful gaming PC or gaming console. The newest Samsung Gear VR is a virtual reality headset that takes your regular ol' (Samsung) smartphone and turns it into a head-mounted galaxy of fun.
What Is It?
- Compatible With: Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge
- Field Of View: 96 Degrees
- Sensors: Accelerometer, Gyro Sensor, Proximity Sensor
- Colours: Frost White
- Dimensions: 83x196x96mm
- Weight: 420g
The Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition For Galaxy S6, to give it its full and proper name, is a virtual reality headset sans most of the crucial electronics. It gets all its smarts, all its technology and its, erm, gear from the Samsung Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge flagship smartphone that plugs into it when you remove that front cover. There's a small, inch-square touchpad on the Gear VR's left edge, and a physical, tactile back button above that that both combine with the motion of your head to navigate through the bundled application's menu system and to actually interact with the world created in front of your eyes.
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 S6 or S6 Edge's 5.1-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 S6 variants work together to move the image that you're looking at whenever you turn your head. Simple, right?
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, although you don't get the microSD card bundled with the previous Gear VR for the Note 4, purely because the S6 and S6 Edge that work with this new Gear VR simply don't have a microSD slot.
To use the Gear VR, you have to download the Oculus VR app — you're prompted with a loud, stern voice command to do exactly this when you plug your phone into the VR headset for the first time. A few hundred megabytes of downloads later, and you'll have the Oculus app, which loads automatically whenever you slot the phone into place and gives you direct access to your entire library of virtual reality games or apps. You navigate by looking around, obviously, to move a cursor around the 3D space, then tap away at the touchpad to select objects or interact with the world — no different to how you'd play a game on a smartphone or a tablet, but optimised for the VR world.
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 Galaxy S6 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 phone 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 Galaxy S6'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 entire experience, too, is markedly improved in small but important ways from the previous Note 4 version of the S6.
There are some fun, if transitory, games that you can play on the Gear VR as well, and the catalogue is noticeably increased since I played with the previous Note 4 edition. Games like the sci-fi hacker Darknet take a normally 2D plane and bring it into a 3D space, and even the most basic titles seem fancy. Simple games like Caldera Defense are free, and understandably so because there's not a great deal going on — you just turn your head to aim at enemy ships and tap the trackpad to blast away, a la Missile Command, but they're still very good fun.
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”, still in its second iteration and still designed for early adopters who don't mind being seen with a big white lump on their faces In a way, 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.
What's It Not Good At?
The range of apps that the Gear VR has is still limited, and the Oculus Store suffers from the problem that all of its titles are full price and there's no mechanism for discounts and freebies. That's perfectly fine, but it does raise the realistic price of the device. 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 phone if you're sitting on a plane or train or automobile (as long as you're not driving), and there are a few games to pass the time with — but they're not especially serious. I'd love a full The Walking Dead experience.
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.
While the ability to pass through power from the Gear VR to your Galaxy S6 is a godsend — it means it doesn't run down on power anywhere like the previous version, which was a real problem not for short-term gaming or novelty use, but if you wanted to sit down and watch a movie, you probably couldn't get through an entire feature-length film — the Gear VR can't charge your phone and is also very, very finicky about the charger and USB charging cable that you use it with. Even the Samsung official fast charger for the S6 doesn't work all the time — it's a bit of a guessing game as to whether it'll work.
Should You Buy It?
Samsung's Gear VR is at its best and most refined yet in this current, second iteration. If you have a Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge, this virtual reality headset is a moderately expensive accessory that adds a genuinely unique and genuinely fun experience to an already good smartphone. It's not something you can pass judgement on without context, though — because no other smartphone manufacturer has one to compare the Gear VR to. Considered on its own, it's a wonderful device to use — as long as you enjoy using it, and as long as you get enough use out of it.
It's not perfect; it won't charge the Galaxy S6 when it's in the headset, but it will keep it powered and maintain its battery level while you're playing around with it. Like the previous version, it does get quite warm and it is possible to overheat the device if you use it for an extended period of time (like, extended — I only ran into it after an hour). It does have a range of apps that is still limited, at least for the time being. It doesn't have any way to play back audio — the other, crucial part of the VR experience — apart from the phone's own speaker or headphone port or Bluetooth. But for the time that you're playing with it, it's awesome.
It's also very well built, especially for something that doesn't function without the aid of a much more precise and much more expensive smartphone. The touchpad could be a little better defined, but the choice of a tactile back button is a great example of Samsung getting the formula right and not messing with it. The head strap is great, the plastics and materials used are just about as high quality as I could want them to be, the locking mechanism feels solid and reassuring — compared to the now-ancient Oculus Rift DK1, the latest Gear VR is supremely refined.
If you have a Samsung Galaxy S6 or Galaxy S6 Edge, it's a perfectly justifiable purchase for the amount of fun — and the unique quality of that fun, the absolute difference of it to any other smartphone experience — that you get. If you don't have an S6, it's obviously a far more expensive proposition and far less likely to be one you'd consider — unless, of course, you're already thinking about changing your phone in the first place. If you are, something like the Gear VR might make you give special consideration to getting a Galaxy S6.