To say limited-time "free stuff!" promotions don't usually lead to cultural shifts would be a colossal understatement. More often than not, the free stuff is dusty old gear that few people wanted to begin with. Samsung's deal that gets you a free Gear VR when you preorder the Galaxy S7, though, could end up playing a crucial role with VR adoption.
It was easy to miss on a day that also saw the launch of two flagship smartphones from Samsung and a groundbreaking modular phone from LG, but also significant is Samsung including a Gear VR, along with US$50 worth of Oculus Store content, with all Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge preorders. Though the Gear VR wasn't expensive to start with ($99), this promotion is going to introduce people to VR who may have never even thought to try it before. It will get the headset into their homes, incite curiosity and get their friends, family and kids playing with it.
At the beginning, the best VR (PC-based) is likely to be limited to enthusiasts who, intentionally or not, act as ambassadors for virtual reality – showing games like Lucky's Tale and Eve: Valkyrie to their friends, getting their imaginations firing about just how cool this stuff can be. At $599 for the Oculus Rift and $799 for the HTC Vive (not to mention the $900+ to buy a gaming PC to power them) the very best stuff isn't going to be in every home on your block for quite some time.
But mobile VR is already priced to sell – and right now the Gear VR is, far and away, the best mobile VR (Google's VR strategy will likely unfold soon, but right now we don't think Cardboard's current hardware or software ecosystem come remotely close). Though the Gear isn't in the same class as the Oculus Rift, its best games come surprisingly close, especially considering the gap in raw horsepower. The Gear VR is simultaneously a high-quality, entry-level VR experience, as well as a gateway drug to get people interested in the top-tier stuff.
Samsung's promotion apparently only applies to Galaxy S7 and GS7 edge preorders, rather than post-release sales, and there is some fine-print about "while supplies last." But if Samsung and Oculus want this stuff to take off sooner than later, they'd be smart to stretch this out as long as they can afford to.
Imagine how smartwatch adoption would skyrocket if Apple included an Apple Watch with every iPhone purchase. Or how the Hololens would take off if Microsoft ultimately included it with every Surface it sold. This isn't quite the same thing (for starters, those are standalone tech products, while the Gear is a hollow housing for your phone), but those comparisons are at least in the same ballpark. Every year lots of people all over the world buy the new Samsung Galaxy flagships when they launch. All of those people will soon have very good VR headsets in their homes.
Everyone and their mother is saying 2016 will be the year of VR, and we agree it's going to make waves this year. Just don't underestimate the importance of strategies like this in that unfolding storyline. Emerging tech doesn't go mainstream until it becomes affordable and accessible – and this may be the biggest step yet in doing just that, even if it's for a limited time only.