Expectations around our Sydney office weren’t very high when we took possession of Samsung’s Gear VR headset. Even though we had a keen interest to see what Samsung's teaming with Oculus has come up with for this consumer offering of virtual reality, the consensus was that it would be perhaps be lame and not worth the effort. By the end of the second day, however, even the most cynical of our staff members were enthralled by some of the things they saw. They actually lined up to use the thing.
Half a kilo worth of gear resting on your face
Samsung’s Gear VR is made up of two components, which, at the time of writing, can set you back close to $1300. That’s the headset itself, which costs $249 and features the optical lens for the 3D view; then there is the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone, which plugs into the headset via its micro-USB port and is needed to provide the high-resolution screen and processing for the entire experience.
That means that you have to wear a 5.7in smartphone/phablet on your face the whole time you use the headset, and it isn’t exactly the most comfortable combination in the world, weighing over 500g. That said, the strapping from the rear to the front of the headset over the head does a decent job of reducing some of the strain. There is padding at the front to cushion the blow to the nose and the area around your eyes (it also helps to block out light), and the straps are Velcro and easily adjustable.
If you use the headset in a warm environment, the fogging of the lenses could become an issue after a while. And herein lies the problem with the Gear VR: we feel like it’s only useful for short bursts of ‘wow’, rather than longer sessions of more typical viewing (headaches and dizziness might also play a part in this depending on how sensitive you are).
For example, we couldn’t wear the VR long enough to watch an entire movie. Far from it; it was fine to just watch snippets of movies or trailers (you can load and watch your own MP4 files), but after the initial novelty of sitting in a virtual cinema (and being able to look around at all the empty seats) wore off, we didn’t really care for watching movies on the virtual big-screen more than we cared about getting the weight off our face. The general consensus in the office was that things got uncomfortable after about 10min of wearing the goggled phone.
An intuitive VR experience
Content can be viewed through the Oculus interface, which does a good job of showing off what this virtual reality set can do. The definition in the majority of content isn't crystal clear (even after adjusting the focus), but it's clear enough to provide a great experience. Furthermore, the drawing of the content appeared mostly seamless as we looked around the various environments we put ourselves into.
You have to download and install the Oculus app prior to immersing yourself in virtual reality, and once it’s installed, any time you attach the phone to the headset, and then put the headset on, the Oculus app will launch automatically. There is a sensor on the inside of the headset that can detect when they are being worn, and when they have been taken off.
Some content is supplied on a microSD card, which you are prompted to insert in the phone during the set-up process for Oculus. You can also get more content off the Oculus and Samsung stores, and this includes games.
You go through an initiation process the first time you use the Gear VR. You have to get to know all of its controls, which are mainly volume, focus, and a physical touchpad and back button on the right side. These can be used to navigate the menus and select the content you want to watch. A crosshair marks a spot on the central spot on the screen, and you can move your head to line up a target and then tap on the touchpad to select it. It's all intuitive, and doesn't take more than a couple of minutes worth of practice to get to know it. Virtual reality games such as Rocket Launch rely on you using the touchpad interface while aiming with your head position.
An on-screen menu can be invoked by pressing down on the back button for a couple of minutes; this menu includes important functions that allow you to bring up an external view, and also to re-orient the headset. The external view allows you to see what's going on around you without first having to remove the headset, though things are a little closer than they seem.
A re-orientation is necessary when you want to sit down to view content in a different direction to where the content is located in the virtual world. For example, if you start the content while facing north, but then sit down facing south, you'll have to re-orient the headset to bring the content south, too. You can't re-orient along the vertical plane, which means you can't lie down to watch a movie; you have to use the gear VR while sitting upright.
As we mentioned, it’s much more suited for viewing bits and pieces of content that can, initially, at least, make your jaw drop. Key to this jaw-dropping is the 360-degree content that’s on offer, in the form of videos and still photographs. It truly is a great experience to be able to look around a scene, as you become immersed in different environments and try to take in every corner of the image or video (often replaying them).
In one of the more dramatic demonstrations of how the technology can be used, a 360-degree video shot from a helicopter gives you a birds-eye view of unbridled horses running through the country-side. Look up, and you will see the helicopter that's carrying you. You are then placed in the mist of a waterfall, and other majestic scenes. It was this experience that made even those who are usually unmoved by technology giggle with glee. Then there are the photos of Mars, which allow you to pan around the Martian landscape, as well look down upon the rover that took the incredible shots. These also drew oohs and ahhs.
You can’t walk around within an environment, of course, but you can turn your head all the way around to see things behind you, beneath you, and above you. A chair that can swivel is a must for these examples of virtual reality, or you can just stand in one spot and turn yourself around, careful not to knock your elbows and knees on furniture.
What's its purpose?
With a product like this, it's sometimes hard to figure out the purpose and what exactly is meant to be achieved. For consumers, it will be all about entertainment. A good example of this is Qantas teaming up with Samsung to trial the headsets in its first class cabins. In the professional realm, reports have emerged of AGL using the Gear VR for employee training. The company will use them primarily to show off aerial footage shot by drones, and to engage in video conferencing.
From the examples we've seen in the Oculus store, virtual tourism is definitely something to look forward to as well, especially as more content of exotic places comes online. We also look forward to the day when museum tours and artifacts all get the VR treatment; even sporting arenas, so that we can virtually sit among the crowd, looking at those around us while at the same time taking in the game (which would, for now, have to be a replay). There is a Cirque Du Soleil example as part of the content that comes with the Gear VR, which shows just how this could work for acrobatic performances and theatre.
But at the same time, the design of the headset will have to change. Having a phone in there might be okay for now, but future products will need a more integrated design that puts less weight on your noggin. What's needed is a dedicated product that does away with the bulk. Perhaps lightweight glasses with a built-in screen that link to the processing power elsewhere either wirelessly or via cable.
That said, the Gear VR isn't meant for a truly mainstream audience just yet. This is just a feeler product for early adopters and tech enthusiasts to sink their chops into. For all intents and purposes, the discomfort of the design at this point is probably a given. And truth be told, other than the weight, the design is decent.
What's the verdict?
Should you buy the Gear VR? If you already own a Galaxy Note 4 (or if you already planned on buying one), then splurging on the Gear VR as an accessory to see what it can do is perhaps not such a bad idea. Especially so if you love technology and have a keen interest to see where the future of virtual reality is headed.
It's a great gadget to share among friends and colleagues, though it's best used at home. Battery drainage will be an issue, and you will also appear a little odd while wearing the glasses, as you look up and around to take in all that you can see, while those looking at you can't see what you're seeing.