Samsung Gear VR review
The idea of virtual reality has been around for as long as computers have, but due to technical limitations a really persuasive implementation has so far seemed frustratingly out of reach. Finally, however, the technology industry is getting its virtual act together, with a host of companies promising to fully immerse you into the digital world. The closest we’ve seen to a fully realised product so far is the Samsung Gear VR.
For such a potentially groundbreaking product, the Gear VR makes a somewhat dissatisfying first impression when you pull it from its zip-up case. It’s made entirely of white plastic, and has the appearance of a rather bulky, unwieldy, rattly pair of ski goggles. It isn’t a good look.
You might also be surprised to discover that the Gear VR doesn’t have its own display. Instead, it works in conjunction with a smartphone (similar to Google Cardboard), and only one model at that – the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The phone clips on at the front, providing the headset’s display, while your vision is refocused onto the surface of the screen via a pair of lenses.
A wheel on top of the headset allows you to adjust the focus, there’s a pair of volume buttons on the right, alongside a capacitive touchpad and a back button, and inside the goggles a sensor detects when you’ve removed the goggles and turns off the screen. Three adjustable straps hold the unit solidly in position, and there’s also a gamepad available for an extra £30.
Samsung Gear VR review: it really works
If it looks fairly basic from the outside, as soon as you don the headset, you’ll realise there’s a lot more at work here. By employing a series of gyroscopes – technology licensed from Oculus VR, the Facebook-owned organisation behind the much-hyped Oculus Rift headset – the Gear VR tracks your head movements in real-time, providing a seamless and completely immersive VR experience.
It really is impressive, and you only have to kick off one of the sample 360-degree movies to see how good it is. Our first try was with TheBluVR, an app Samsung supplies to showcase the technology. It’s an educational VR CGI “video” that flies you through a seascape, providing a basic educational commentary, and allowing you to look around freely as you go.
Being able to follow a killer whale’s progress as it swims in front of you, or a shark as it approaches and swims behind you, is an experience that convinces us that this is a technology that’s here to stay. Anything that causes PC Pro’s otherwise articulate editor-in-chief Tim Danton to blurt out “that’s amazing” like a hormonally unbalanced teenager has to be pretty good.
And this isn’t where the Gear VR’s talents end. It’s possible to play games, view static, yet still immersive, 360-degree photographs, and even watch standard 3D and 2D movies via the Oculus Cinema app. The latter isn’t as daft as it sounds: the app places you in a virtual cinema seat in a virtual cinema: you can watch the movie as comfortably as you’d expect, but look left or right and you’ll see empty seats. Since the screen doesn’t follow you around, it’s completely convincing and as a result the viewing experience feels completely natural.
Some of this content is supplied on a microSD card, which comes with the headset, but you can also download further apps, games photos and video from the Gear VR’s store app. Not all of it is inspiring, however. Milk VR’s selection of 360-degree videos are effective, but rather boring, and most of the games are lightweight “look, shoot and explore” affairs.
Some are more developed – Temple Run VR, for instance – but within five minutes of playing this game we were reaching for the sick bucket. The sense of motion sickness was simply too much to bear, proving that not all types of game will be suitable for the full VR treatment.
Despite this, there’s enough here to provide a tantalising insight into what the VR content of the future might look like. The aforementioned TheBluVR, for instance, is paper thin, but a fully fledged app would be a revelation in an educational environment. Being able to pause the action, zoom in on a particular creature and launch a floating information panel, drawn from Wikipedia, could create a new genre of pedagogic tools – immersive documentaries that fully immerse the student in the subject matter at hand.
The cinema is another taster of things to come: why sully your minimalist designer living room with a huge 100in telly, when all you really need for the full home theatre experience is one of these strapped to your noggin accompanied by a pair of decent headphones? For now, however, the resolution isn’t high enough for it to be mainstream.
Up this close, you can clearly see the grain of the Galaxy Note 4’s AMOLED display, especially around the edges of text, buttons and graphics. And that isn’t terribly surprising: the Note 4 may have an incredible high-resolution screen (2,560 x 1,440), but split it into two and look at it from an inch away, and it looks less impressive.
Still, in years to come, as the pixel density of LCD panels rises inexorably, it should be a genuine alternative to static TVs and projectors for big-screen viewing.
Samsung Gear VR review: verdict
In light of the limitations outlined above, it’s understandable that Samsung has tagged the epithet “Innovator’s Edition” onto the end of the Gear VR’s name. This is obviously an early adopter device, and isn’t ready yet for mass-market consumption. The mere fact that it can only be used with one type of smartphone will see to that anyway, alongside the fact that the content is still in its infancy, much of it feeling like demo material rather than properly polished commercial software.
There are some niggly problems with the hardware as well. The biggest is that it can be difficult to find a position in which both eyes are able to focus on the display. After much trial and error, we found that mounting the goggles higher on our face provided the most satisfactory results, but even then we had problems with lenses fogging after a period of use, which ruined the effect.
It’s clearly early days for consumer VR. Even the much-hyped Oculus Rift is still only available as a developer kit, and must be tethered to a PC. The content isn’t completely convincing, and the resolution isn’t as high as it needs to be to gain consumer approval in a world of Full HD and 4K TVs.
Despite its various limitations, however, we think the Samsung Gear VR is a fabulous piece of kit. It’s a truly impressive technical achievement, good enough to convince us that within a couple of generations this sort of device will become mainstream technology. For now, it’s a glimpse of the future – but one that, if you’re curious, can be bought for a mere £190.