How Samsung and Oculus can improve the Gear VR for its "full consumer" launch
The first two Gear VRs are trying to straddle two sides of the fence: on one hand, they technically aren't full consumer products, branded instead as "Innovator Editions" for developers and early adopters. But on the other hand, the Gear VR has a paid app store, makes appearances in Samsung ads and is sold in Best Buy stores. What can Samsung and Oculus do to differentiate the upcoming "full consumer" version?
Oculus has said that we can expect this full consumer Gear VR later this year. That likely means its announcement will come at IFA, alongside the Galaxy Note 5. Some of the headset's upgrades will be tied to the phone that's powering it – and if that's the Note 5, then a larger screen would mean a wider field of view, while a sharper screen would mean even less of a screen door effect (visible pixels while moving your head around in the virtual world). It's already doing fine in those two categories, but improvements there wouldn't hurt.
As for the headset itself, a better lens fog fix is high on our wishlist. The Gear VR for S6 has a built-in fan that supposedly reduces fogging compared to the Note 4 version, but we found that it's still pretty problematic in this respect. Without using defogging agents designed for scuba masks, we still find lens fog to be distracting in the S6 version.
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe told us at the Rift launch event that the consumer Oculus Rift doesn't fog up on him. And during our hands-on with the Rift at E3, we found that there was more of an opening at the bottom while wearing it: this lets in light if you're in a bright room, but it also appears to reduce – if not eliminate – lens fog. So perhaps a consumer Gear VR that doesn't hug so tightly against your face at the bottom would be all the lens fog fix Samsung and Oculus need.
If there's some kind of permanent chemical coating that could achieve the same end, then that would be even better. A tighter fit against the face means a more immersive experience even if you're using it in a well-lit room (that light coming in at the bottom took away from the sense of presence in our E3 Oculus Rift demo).
The Gear VR for S6 more or less solved the overheating problem in the Note 4 Gear VR, thanks to its built-in fan and (perhaps) some heat-producing or heat-conducting improvements in the GS6 itself (we can use the S6 Gear VR for an hour before getting an overheating message vs. about 20-30 minutes in the Note 4 model). But the consumer version could afford to take this even farther; there's really no place at all for overheating concerns of any kind in "full consumer" products.
A full consumer Gear VR could afford to have some kind of controller included. Samsung sells an Android gamepad (above) that it recommends for the Note 4 Gear VR, but it's only sold in Samsung's online store (we haven't seen it in any retail stores, or from anywhere but third-party sellers on Amazon). You can use third-party controllers that are cheaper (we've had no problem with a US$25 Moga controller), but bundling the Samsung gamepad would be a big step towards an all-inclusive experience.
It may be too tall an order for this first-generation version, but if Samsung could bundle or sell a compatible motion-based control that can deliver hand presence – similar to Oculus Touch – that would be huge. That's almost certainly not going to happen, though, as developers haven't had time to make Gear VR apps for any such controller. Maybe Oculus Touch will make its way to a second or third generation consumer Gear VR, a year or two from now, but the odds of seeing that in the first version are slim to none.
The other accessory you need to add to the Innovator Editions of the Gear VR is a pair of headphones or earbuds. You can always just use the buds that are bundled with your Samsung phone, but if Samsung could put some built-in headphones into the Gear VR– maybe even with positional sound, like in the Oculus Rift – that could make everything 100 percent self-contained. Headset, built-in audio, bundled controller. Everyone gets everything they need right in the box (well, except for the phone).
Speaking of phones, it will be interesting to see how the full consumer Gear VR handles that. Will it only be compatible with the new Galaxy Note, leaving owners of the Galaxy S6, GS6 edge and Note 4 to use their respective Innovator Editions? Or will Samsung sell different consumer versions for each of those phones? Or perhaps one headset that can adjust for all three?
From a marketing standpoint, it makes less sense to have your big consumer launch tied exclusively to the Note 5. The GS6 and Edge will almost certainly be more popular than Samsung's stylus-based phablet, so we'd imagine they'll be served somehow.
The Gear VR's Oculus Store is already in pretty good shape, content-wise – but that may end up being the biggest thing that differentiates the consumer version. Oculus and Samsung have been throwing money at smaller developers, encouraging them to create content – and we've already seen some impressive fruits from those seeds. But perhaps bigger developers are also cooking up some AAA type of mobile VR titles that could launch aside the headset? Herobound already falls into that category to some degree, but more titles closer to what we saw demoed on the Oculus Rift at E3 (with some graphical compromises for mobile, of course) could make the "real" Gear VR the must-have device Samsung wants it to be.
If you're a current Gear VR owner, let us know in the comments if we missed anything you'd like to see in the consumer edition later this year. And for more, you can read Gizmag's full review of the Gear VR for S6 and our hands-on with the consumer-facing Oculus Rift.