Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition for S6 review: The future is here

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An awful lot of people think the future of gaming and cinema involves harnessing virtual reality in some capacity. True, there are plenty of those who also have a vested interest in making sure it happens, but, while it could fizzle out like a fad such as 3D televisions, VR somehow feels different. Unlike 3D, VR offers a markedly different experience that gamers, rather than marketers, are actively championing.

Putting on Samsung’s latest Gear VR headset for the first time is an amazing experience. While it’s true you can get an approximation by making a Google Cardboard headset, it almost feels unfair to mention them in the same breath. Although a Cardboard VR headset can be made for pounds, the Gear VR will set you back £169, a significant outlay in anyone’s book.

For that price, you’re getting an amazing experience that your friends will be fascinated to try, but you’d be fooling yourself if you think it’ll be any more than a fleeting one. The Oculus Rift is imminent, along with a host of other VR headsets from the HTC Vive to the Microsoft HoloLens. In the long run, they will likely offer more, but as a first taste, the Gear VR is pretty compelling.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition for S6 review: The second coming

I should point out at this point that this is Samsung’s second Gear VR headset, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is some kind of big follow-up – it’s actually pretty much the same thing, only designed to fit a different handset. While the original Gear VR would only fit the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, this version is designed for only the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge.

There are some performance points inherent with this: the Note 4 has a larger screen and a lower pixel density than the S6 and S6 Edge, which you’d think might make some difference. In practical terms, however, you’d struggle to tell the two apart. In short, it’s a little blurry at times, and you can see the pixels surprisingly clearly, but you stop noticing that very quickly. In terms of changes to the headset itself, again they’re limited.

You can now charge the phone through the headset, if you’re willing to be tethered via a cable to your laptop or the mains, and there’s now no visor covering the phone at the front, but that’s about it. That’s not much reason to upgrade, even if you could do so without throwing out your current phone, which you can’t.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition for S6 review: Design

Samsung’s designers have done their best to make the Gear VR headset look good. It’s all smooth, shiny plastics, put together nicely, but they’re ultimately on a hiding to nothing. However you paint it, putting a VR headset over your face makes you look like a fool. This will be the biggest hurdle to widespread adoption of the technology – comparatively speaking, the experience is the easy sell.

Unlike the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR headset is merely a shell for the Galaxy phone to fit in. All the heavy lifting is done by the phone – the Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge, in this case. Other phones won’t fit, and won’t be detected. Once connected to the micro-USB dock in landscape mode, and clipped into place, the phone chimes to let you know it’s booting into VR mode.

Navigating around this brave new world of virtual reality is a breeze with the Gear VR. The menu is presented floating in front of you, and a tutorial instantly explains how things are done. Looking at menu items and touching the pad on the side of the headset selects them, while swiping your finger along a touchpad on the side of the headset allows you to control menus, and even movement in the virtual reality version of Temple Run.

There’s a back button on the side, too, which will always bring you back to the main menu should you need it, and even allow you to see out of the phone’s camera so you can tell if people are pulling faces at you in the real world. The apps all come from the Oculus store, which is integrated with the headset. Samsung suggests you set up card details before beginning, but there’s enough free stuff here to keep you going for a while.

In fact, the only element that isn’t controlled through the headset is setting up a Bluetooth gamepad. This isn’t required for everything, but any games beyond the extremely superficial require one. Samsung sells its own game controller, but any Bluetooth pad will suffice – in theory. You can connect a PlayStation 4 pad to the Galaxy S6, but I found it was prone to strange key mapping and – worse – it occasionally got stuck and I found myself spinning on the spot. Thank God for the Gear VR’s back button, or I might have passed out. A Nexus Bluetooth pad fixed the problem and opened up a whole host of meaty gaming experiences.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition for S6 review: Store and content

The store is pretty barren, but is showing signs of life now paid apps are part of the ecosystem. They’re a strange mix of glorified tech demos and existing companies trying to find their feet in the strange new world of VR. Take Netflix, for example. It’s very tongue in cheek, but the Netflix app provides you with a virtual living room in some kind of exotic wooden cabin. There’s a BoJack Horseman poster above the big screen, and you can look away from the TV should you wish. This actually offers a surprising benefit – old 4:3 ratio television actually looks good in VR land, without the hideous black borders you’d have on your real screen, but it’s still not something you’d want to use regularly.

The various video demos are more impressive, usually used to promote specific products. The Jurassic Park scene sees a brontosaurus coming right up to you, as you peer around a jungle scene, and watching friends marvel at the experience is a big reminder of exactly how futuristic this seems.

By way of games, there’s plenty to assure sceptics that the future is very bright indeed, but there’s also proof that just because something can be made in VR, doesn’t mean it should be. This is especially the case with Temple Run, which offers no benefit to looking around you, and which made everyone who sampled its delights feel more than a little queasy.

Dreadhalls fares better. It’s slower paced and, as a horror game, really taps into the paranoia of why you’d want to be constantly looking over your shoulder. The downside of the tech does become apparent here, however: although the headset provides full head tracking via technology borrowed from Oculus, there’s no connection with the rest of your body. This means in games that provide a first person view, you have to adjust which way you’re facing using the gamepad, which can lead to a strange disconnect between the way you’re physically facing and the way you’re looking in-game.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition for S6 review: Verdict

But I’m nitpicking here and this is, to an extent, just the growing pains of a completely new technology. While there aren’t any truly phenomenal gaming experiences available here yet, the Gear VR Innovator Edition for S6 is a great taste of things to come, and it’s clearly different enough to be truly revolutionary – if we can get around how ridiculous headsets look strapped to our faces.

The Gear VR Innovator Edition for S6 essentially gets you access to this brave new world on the ground floor, but while the hardware is polished, the software is far from mature, and the chances are that the headset will be gathering dust in a year’s time. Even if there’s nothing better out there, support for future phones is neither promised nor particularly likely.

Whether or not you think £169 is a fair price to taste the future is something I can’t decide for you, but having spent a week living with it, I do think it’s something everyone should try. New technology can only blow you away once: the Gear VR delivers the awe, and then some.

Want more from your VR experience? Read our hands-on review of the HTC Vive – it might be right up your street

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