In just three years, virtual reality has gone from a curiosity (sparked by a crowdfunding indie startup called Oculus VR) to a new category of consumer product that many consider to be "the next big thing." Never one to shy away from such things, Samsung has partnered with Oculus to launch the first consumer VR headset that matters. Meet the groundbreaking Gear VR.
Before virtual reality became a media buzzword and topic of conversation in techie circles, there was the magic. It was that magic that made gaming legend John Carmack publicly endorse Oculus before the company had even raised a penny on Kickstarter, and it was that same magic that caught our attention during our first test drive of the Rift at CES 2013. Beyond the dollars, hype and lofty expectations that surround it today, that magic is still at the core of the great VR experiences. It's why we still care about it.
It's the magic of strapping on a pair of goggles and suddenly feeling like you're somewhere else. Though you know you're really sitting in a chair with a controller in your hand playing a game, just enough of your brain is tricked that it feels like you've stepped into a teleporting machine. Virtual reality doesn't physically send you somewhere else, but it does give you experiences that, on a perception level, aren't too far away from that. Magic.
If you were a brave early adopter, you may have been using VR in various forms – including Rift developer kits, Google Cardboard and Gear VR Innovator Editions – for the last year or two. They captured that magic with varying degrees of success, but the technology was still front and center. "Wow, I feel like I'm creeping through this dungeon, hiding from vicious beasts and – oh, look at that, my headset has overheated and needs to shut down."
But this Gear VR, the new version that's available now, is the first big-ticket headset that's a full-blown consumer product. There's an extra level of consumer-friendly polish and barely any layers of tech stuff staring you in the face. It's your most direct portal to that magic yet.
Some apps, games and experiences are more magical than others. Like any platform, some games don't elicit much interest from us and we stop playing after five minutes or so. But then there are titles like Land's End, Eve Gunjack, Herobound, The Night Cafe, Dreadhalls and Viral that give us wonderful glimpses into what VR can be. The novelty of VR can only mask mediocre game design for so long; but take a great game – one made with thought, care and attention to detail, that would hold up on other platforms – and place it in this new medium, and your jaw may literally drop. Mine certainly has for much of the time I've been using the Gear VR, and I've been using VR headsets for a couple of years already.
While the basic VR experience is nearly identical to what we got from Samsung's two Innovator Editions (developer kits that early adopter consumers could also buy), overheating is no longer a concern. We were impressed with the early 2015 Innovator Edition's improvements in this respect, but before writing this I just played a bunch of games for an hour and a half straight in the consumer version and stopped on my own accord without any overheating slowdowns or shutdowns (and without any fans pointed at my head). The longest I went with the previous version was one hour, and the original Innovator Edition rarely lasted longer than 30 minutes.
Quick tip: we did run into heating problems when downloading and installing games while wearing the headset, so if you want a lengthier session, be sure to get your content onto the phone (with a cool-down period in between) before you start playing.
Speaking of phones, you'll still need a Samsung phone to use the Gear VR. This is both the coolest thing about the headset, and its most obvious limitation. If you already own one of Samsung's 2015 flagships – the Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge, Galaxy Note 5 or Galaxy S6 edge+ – then US$99 is nothing short of an amazing price to turn your phone into a badass VR console. And these are easily four of the best phones of the year, so it's not like you're being asked to lug around some watered-down shit-phone just to get in on the fun.
At the same time, though, not everyone wants to use a Samsung phone, so owners of other smartphones are left to either consider the slightly crazy proposition of buying a new handset just to get this awesome VR headset or wait for the PC- and console-based stuff that arrives in a few months. If you don't have any interest in using a Samsung phone, then just wait for the Rift – it won't be long. But if, VR aside, you're already torn 50/50 between one of those Galaxy flagships and something else, then there's no harm in letting the Gear VR tilt the scales towards the Samsung phone. It's awesome enough to do that.
As for which phone, we think the two 5.7-inch phablets (Note 5 and S6 edge+, above) provide the better Gear VR experience. This is actually contradictory to what we've said before – we never thought the smaller 5.1-inch GS6 and GS6 edge were much different inside the headset, but that changed recently when we used one immediately after the other. The experience of using the smaller phones isn't a huge difference visually, but there's a slight cut-off on the edges giving them a lower effective field of view – it's just significant enough to slightly diminish the sense of what Oculus calls "presence" (the sensation of being someplace else). With the GS6 inside the Gear VR, my reaction is something like "this is some really cool mobile VR; I can't wait for the Rift." But when I switched to the larger Galaxy S6 edge+ inside of the Gear, I had more of the kinds of jaw-hanging-wide-open experiences that VR is capable of.
Again, though, the visual difference is very small. It's more about the subconscious reaction (or at least mine) to the minor FOV increase with the larger phones.
Until VR headset makers start putting some kind of wonder chemical on their lenses that makes lens fog impossible, it's going to be something we'll all have to deal with. Until you get "up to temp" (when the temperature difference between the phone and the glass of the lenses gets closer) there's going to be fogging on the lenses, so it's something you'll want to be proactive with.
The best solution we found were chemicals designed for scuba masks (never use anti-fog agents made for car windshields ... we hope the reasons go without saying). A product called Clarity Defog It wipes work just fine and aren't messy at all, but they're very expensive. Our (slightly messier) recommendation is called Jaws Quick Spit. Spray a little of the solution on your fingers and then massage it into the lenses. Wipe off the excess with a microfiber cloth and you should be fog-free for several VR sessions. It runs around $6 a bottle on Amazon and lasts for a while, so your money goes pretty far.
The headset itself is lighter and more comfortable in this consumer version. The Innovator Editions had a cheaper-feeling foam padding lining the front (the part that presses against your face) but the consumer Gear VR has a thicker, more substantial-feeling fabric(?) material in its place. It's less Nerf-y, more pillow-y.
The Gear's touchpad (used in some apps in place of a Bluetooth controller for navigation) is also better, with an indented cross pattern on it that makes it easier to find while fumbling around in the virtual dark. You'll still want to pick up a quality Android-compatible gamepad (we've been using the terrific Steelseries Stratus XL) to get the most out of the headset.
Content for the Gear VR is about as good as anyone could expect for a brand new platform. When we chatted with Oculus' head of mobile Max Cohen at the company's latest developer conference, he said "with the consumer edition we wanted to have bottomless content where you can't get to the end of it."
With the Innovator Editions (especially a year ago after the first one launched), it was easy to get to the end. I found myself playing short demos over and over just to have something cool to play. But now it's feeling more like a mature app store, with pages full of quality content and more trickling in on a regular basis. For Day One on a new platform, that's quite the accomplishment (thanks in no small part to the interest drummed up by the two public dev kits).
The selection will continue to improve, but even now there's plenty to do here. It isn't yet impossible to get to the end, but it's a lot harder. And a year from now – maybe even six months – it probably will be impossible for one human being who has a life outside of virtual reality to get to the end.
The Gear VR provides an often-magical virtual reality experience; we recommend any owner of a 2015 Samsung flagship who's even mildly curious about VR to pay $99 for it. The Oculus Rift will crank the graphical prowess and sense of presence up a few notches, but the Gear VR is following closer behind than you may expect. Google Cardboard makes for a cool enough tech demo and there's lots of other fun stuff coming in 2016, but right now the Gear VR is the only real virtual reality platform. It's mobile VR, but infinitely more mesmerizing than mobile games you'd play on your phone without a headset.
The consumer Gear VR is available now from Samsung, Amazon and Best Buy, though currently backordered at Samsung and out of stock at the latter two. Keep your eyes peeled for inventory reloads or hit up eBay if you want one before the holidays.
For more, you can revisit Gizmag's interview with Oculus' Max Cohen about the new Gear VR.