At just $99, the Samsung Gear VR gives you a good idea of what VR tech has to offer right now. It also offers a tantalizing glimpse of what VR can do in the near future.
If you haven’t heard about VR before and wanted to know what the hype is all about, check out this article I did covering all things VR (and its sister tech, AR) right here. I can wait if you need a minute (or five) to read it. Don’t worry!
Done? Well then, let’s see what the Gear VR is all about, and why you should try it if you want to get a taste of what VR is capable of right now.
Getting Ready for Takeoff
Once you get it out of the box, the first thing you notice about the Gear VR is just how light it is. At just over 300 grams, it’s lighter than both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
The first thing you notice about the Gear VR is just how light it is.
There are two elastic straps you need to fasten- one horizontal, another vertical. You can do without the vertical one though if you don’t want to mess up your hair. Then you just need to open the front cover and adjust the holder position according to your phone’s size. A’s for the bigger phones (Note 5, Note 7, S6 Edge+, S7 Edge) while B’s for the smaller ones (S6, S7).
Once you adjust the phone into position and put on the headset, Gear VR will prompt you to install the core Oculus app. This is around 700 MB in size and takes around 5 minutes to set up. Once that’s done, you are all set to use your Gear VR!
The First Few Minutes
It’s hard to convey what VR feels like with just words and screenshots. But I will give it a good try!
In the Land of Giants
Everything’s much bigger in VR. The scale is actually a bit exaggerated, so everything is slightly larger than in real life. Nevertheless, you get wowed by being surrounded by this kind of enormity, and then turning your head to see it in 360. It’s a stark contrast for those of us who are used to staring at tiny screens all day long.
Everything’s much bigger in VR.
The 360 head tracking is very good, especially for a first-gen consumer headset. Unlike Google Cardboard, Gear VR comes with several sensors such an accelerometer, gyroscope and geomagnetic sensor, among others.
What the Gear VR does is project two different displays on your phone screen for each of your eyes. The lens then merges those displays into one view.
The effect is pretty seamless, and the 101-degree field of view gives a lot of room for your eyes up front. However, every now and then you realize that you are staring out of two eyeholes and not at one screen.
Pixelation is a Serious Distraction
There’s also a focus wheel at the top of the Gear VR that you can use if the default setting does not sit well with your eye power. However, even the best settings won’t get you the crisp, razor-like sharpness you get with AMOLED and Retina screens.
Mind you, the 2K (2560×1440) displays of the current range of Samsung flagships are more than equipped for regular use. However, cramming them right in front of your eyes in a VR headset produces less than desirable results. You can actually make out the diamond like individual pixels in the display. I felt like I had gone back to the era of CRT monitors and TVs before HD displays became mainstream.
You can actually see the individual pixels that make up the display.
To be fair, this is a problem that plagues all current headsets. You get used to it after a couple of minutes. It’s not enough of an annoyance to ruin the great depth of Gear VR’s impressive content library.
Robust Controls That Still Need Some Tweaking
The navigational touchpad on the right side of the headset is easy enough to get used to. Swiping in any of the four directions will move the menu items in that direction. Most of the time, tapping the center of the touchpad gets the job done. There is also a back button and a home button above the touchpad.
Your hands will probably get sore after fiddling with the touchpad for a while. It’s best to use a Bluetooth controller to do most of the navigation. If you don’t have one already, I suggest the GameSir G3s. It’s very robust and is available right now at a very reasonable $33.99. If you want to go for something pricier, look no further than the SteelSeries Stratus XL. At $55, this beast will feel right at home with both your smartphone and gaming PC.
Most of the apps don’t make good use of all the buttons available on the controller. Some allow movement with the left analog stick and camera rotation with the right analog stick. Unfortunately, the rotation effect is often choppy instead of seamless.
The Intuitive Interface is a Good Launch Pad
The home menu is a simple set of tiles that are easy to navigate through. At the center, a few apps currently in the spotlight are featured; to the right you can see some of the recent apps you have played in your library.
At the bottom, there are navigational buttons which you can use to go to the Oculus Store or your full Library.
A Surprisingly Deep Content Library
You don’t have any pre-installed apps at the beginning. The core Oculus app does offer you the option of downloading some pre-selected content when you first start the Gear VR. It’s nothing to write home about, however.
At the Oculus Store, you can go to Samsung Picks or Top Paid VR tabs to get hands on the best quality content available right now. There are tons of free content available, but most of it is throwaway except for a handful few.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but be amazed at the sheer volume of content available at the Oculus Store right now. With over 400 apps, there is a wide variety of content to explore and get lost in. Most of these are around 150-400 MB size, while the bigger apps can be as big as 1.5 GB.
There is also an open source marketplace for Gear VR apps called SideloadVR. Most of the apps there are less polished than their counterparts on the Oculus Store. However, some of them, such as the Stream Theater and YTCinema VR, deserve checking out.
If you have a 32 GB phone like I do, you might want to clear out some space for all the VR goodies beforehand.
Experiencing the Magic of VR
By this point, I have probably mentioned three caveats for every feature of the Gear VR. Trust me, all the minor hurdles are absolutely worth the highs you experience with the best apps in Gear VR.
I am going to talk about some of the apps that, to me, represent the best aspects of the Gear VR experience. There are probably other apps you might like– especially horror and investigative games like Dead Secret and Dreadhalls. I didn’t try those as they aren’t my cup of tea.
Ocean Rift and Titans of Space
Ocean Rift is a great app to make your first stop on your VR journey. There are 12 areas, each with their signature marine attractions, that you can explore. It’s very minimalistic, but the atmosphere is the star attraction.
The absolute alien nature of the underwater environment leaves quite the impression. Often, you cannot see anything but water in front of you. You have to swim around a bit to fully discover the variety of fauna in the game.
The underwater environment leaves quite the impression.
Getting to play with dolphins, sea lions and manatees was an absolute delight for an animal lover like me. The Orca whales are too fast to keep up with, while the humpbacks are humongous, graceful and awe-inspiring. You can also have some pretty scary encounters with the likes of great white sharks and even prehistoric dinosaurs!
Titans of Space is another app that serves as a great entry point into the world of VR. It takes you on a guided tour of the solar system, comparing the various planetary bodies in scale and then showing them in orbit.
The entire tour lasts around 10 minutes and is a must-see experience for those who have the Gear VR. I won’t spoil the tour- it’s something that’s best discovered by yourself for the first time. Like with Ocean Rift, the unique environment is the star of the experience.
GunJack and End Space
These are two space-themed action games which are quite similar.
With GunJack, you are strapped to a stationery turret, shooting down enemy spaceships as they attack.
In End Space, you have more freedom, piloting a spaceship through various areas, fighting enemies as you come upon them.
GunJack is the more polished experience, though it can get a bit boring and repetitive after some time. End Space’s gameplay is more clunky. Executing horizontal and vertical movements at the same time is also mildly nauseating.
Netflix, Hulu and Samsung Internet
The Netflix and Hulu apps in the Gear VR are underrated gems. What they do is simple, but it’s very, very cool to experience. You sit in the center of a huge environment—this can be a living room, a movie theater or simply the endless void—in front of a huge screen.
Seeing movies and TV series like this on the Gear VR already rivals the experience of going to the theatre. Now all I need is the ability to simulcast this with a couple of my friends. That, and eating snacks and drinks without having to lift the VR headset every time would be nice, too!
Seeing movies and TV series on the Gear VR already rivals the experience of going to the theater.
Unfortunately, Hulu isn’t available outside of the US. Netflix is a great alternative, with a deep content library and a robust app.
The Samsung Internet app is the standard browser for the Gear VR. It’s got a nice UI, but it’s cumbersome to use without a keyboard. The browser also doesn’t support some web players, which is a bummer. It’s great for doing stuff like watching Youtube or your favorite blogs and news sites, though.
Stream Theater and Moon Player
Stream Theater is a great way to experience current PC games in a VR environment. It uses Nvidia Gamestreaming technology to remotely connect with your PC and play games on a giant screen. If you have a pricy Nvidia graphics card and a good broadband connection, don’t miss out on this. It’s one of the must see experiences for the Gear VR, especially if you are a gamer.
There is a noticeable tradeoff in visuals, however. Most games with high quality textures don’t look as good in Stream Theater. It’s great for texture-light games such as No Man’s Sky and Fallout, however!
Your phone will probably get overheated around 20-30 mins into gameplay. You can still continue playing for a while afterwards, but do so at your own risk.
Moon Player is a decent VR video player for the Gear VR. It’s most remarkable feature is Air Play, which allows you to connect with PCs to stream video files from them. It’s a great complement to and also alternative for streaming apps like Netflix. It’s lack of better environments, such as a home theater or a cinema, is a letdown. The app gets updated frequently, so let’s hope they will be added in the future.
The Presence, The Invasion and I am You
These are three shorts that, I feel, indicate how VR filmmaking might be in the future.
The Presence is about four friends who do a séance to investigate the mysteries of the new apartment two of them moved into. You can switch between a variety of POVs to see what’s going on right now. It’s a great concept that wasn’t explored as much as it could have been in the short. Nevertheless, it’s well acted and does a good job in creating a tense atmosphere.
The Invasion is an animated short story about two aliens who come to Earth in hopes of world domination, only to have them thwarted by a cute bunny. It’s beautifully designed, in 3D and full of antics that will be a blast for the kids.
The last one, I Am You, is an experimental film that explores intimacy and intensity in relationships, in an unusual way. The boyfriend is excited about a new app called IMU that lets couples swap bodies and explore being in each other’s shoes. He convinces the girl to try it out. Once it works, the POV switches from you sitting in a movie theater to you taking the role of the girl (who’s now in the boyfriend’s body).
Butterflies in Your Gut
You don’t get to control the head movements, but it’s a plus for the short. The director uses the limited flexibility to fine-tune the narrative focus of your experience. The girl (who, remember, actually is the boyfriend) laughs as she stares meaningfully into your eyes. She runs one hand up one of your arms, while the other glides to the side of your head.
The acting, direction and cinematography are understated, but they do a fine job of bringing a new dimension of intimacy that you can’t achieve without VR. You feel the bond between this couple. Then they start fighting. Your heart sinks as the girl storms off.
I Am You is a great example of how focusing on human connection can create powerful VR experiences. It’s a route that I hope creators choose to explore more in the future.
Is the Gear VR here to Stay?
Honestly? Probably not. Future iterations might become a mainstay, but right now it’s probably going to remain a niche novelty.
Even the best apps in Gear VR’s library are mostly promises of better things to come. Most of the games and interactive experiences have very low replay value. They represent very simple scenarios. More complex elements such as storylines are a far cry at the moment.
In fact, the streaming apps are the one thing that you can come back to again and again and not be disappointed. However, the Gear VR shows too much promise to satisfy us as simply a home theater alternative.
This lack of long-form content kills the longevity value of the Gear VR. The fact that only a handful of Samsung phones can be used with it also limits its userbase. It’s also a huge battery hog and overheats the phone quite often. To be fair, there’s a battery port that can be used to charge the phone while in Gear VR.
If you already own a compatible Samsung flagship, spending another $99 on the Gear VR is a no brainer. It’s absolutely worth the money it costs.
If you use another phone, I can understand If you are reluctant to try it out. Hopefully, the promise and modest success of Gear VR will prompt other phone manufacturers to explore similar options in the future. There’s already Lenovo’s Vibe K4 Note which works with the ANT VR headset. There’s also LG’s 360 VR for its G5 flagship. And of course, Google Daydream is coming out in November. You can bet that others aren’t far behind.
As it stands, however, Samsung Gear VR is the way to go for a taste of entry-level VR. It reorients your mindset as to what VR can do, and prepares you for the wonders to come in the near future.