Samsung and Oculus have taken virtual reality and made it something fascinating, new, and reasonably priced.
Virtual reality is not a new idea. For $2 and a splitting headache afterwards, a kiosk in the mall I went to as a teen would let me play Quake 3 Arena with an awkward helmet over a mouse and keyboard. The aim for VR has always been to try and make the hardware affordable enough for hard-core gamers to consider a new accessory for their PC, but it hasn't been until recently that Oculus Rift and its kin have been even remotely affordable. Even now, we know anyone playing on a Rift or a Vive next year will at the very least need to have around $1,000 worth of gaming PC to enjoy the experience.
There's another kind of VR out today, based on something that hasn't existed before the past year or so. Smartphones are in more pockets than any other kind of computer on the planet, and these tiny computers with amazing displays and continuously improving graphics experiences are capable of so much more than just checking Facebook. In a partnership with Oculus, the folks at Samsung have worked to create an active VR environment with its own dedicated store and user experience. You slide your new Samsung phone into the casing, and the smartphone interface is replaced with a unique virtual world full of incredible, unique experiences.
It's called the Samsung Gear VR, and it's the new standard for smartphone-based virtual experiences. Here's our review.
About this review
This review has been written after eight days with the new Samsung Gear VR, but also after several months of using the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition. A Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and a Samsung Galaxy S6 edge were used with the Gear VR 2015, both on Verizon Wireless in Glen Burnie, Md.
A plastic box hugging your face
Samsung Gear VR Hardware
Setting aside the usual barrage of pointlessly obvious design commentary when talking about a VR headset — including how awkward and antisocial and "uncool" this box strapped to your head is — Samsung's design for the Gear VR is one of the better implementations available today. We've strapped a lot of these silly plastic and cardboard boxes to our faces here at Android Central over the last two years, and Samsung has used that time to refine its design and make the Gear VR something that works comfortably for more people than any other strap-on VR headset out there today.
The quality is noticeably better, but you're still going to see pixels.
The plastic body is fairly simple. One one side you have a pair of clips to hold your phone in place, and on the other side you have a padded socket for your eyes and nose to go in. A pair of straps secure the padded socket to your head from the sides as well as the top, though like previous versions of the Gear VR the top strap doesn't do enough to keep the headset from sliding down onto the bridge of your nose if you have a slender face. If your face is the right size for this headset, the top strap does a great job, but Samsung had to choose between supporting more faces and supporting users with glasses with this design and the ability to see won out.
Samsung's lenses, which warp the images on the display to fill your vision, are adjusted by a simple focus wheel at the top of the plastic casing. Turn the wheel until the images on the display come into focus, and you're good to go. This little tweak wheel makes it easy to pass around at a party, and ensures as many people as possible can enjoy the experience. This being a smartphone-powered experience, you're still doing to get a good bit of graininess in the images you see even with Samsung's amazing displays on the other side of the plastic. You're essentially holding a magnifying lens to an image being drawn on less than half of a 2560x1400 display, and if you're using a Note 5 the increased size of the display means even fewer pixels are being used to draw the images you're seeing in VR. The quality is noticeably better than the Gear VR Innovator Edition with the Galaxy Note 4, but you're still going to see some pixels.
The right side of the Gear VR — that's right as you wear it not right as you look at someone else wearing it — is all about controlling the virtual interface. Unlike Google's single touch button for Cardboard, there's a dedicated back button and a touchpad with grooves to help identify that D-Pad controller layout with just your finger. There's a groove in the middle of this trackpad that feels like a button, but it doesn't do anything you can't do everywhere else on the trackpad. Tap to select, swipe to move, and back to return to the previous menu. It's a simple interface, and if it feels uncomfortable to hold you hand up to your head for 30 minutes you can always use a Bluetooth gamepad for control, but on its own the touchpad gets the job done.
Samsung did exactly what they needed to do with the Gear VR, make it something a whole lot of people can enjoy.
Across the bottom of the Gear VR you'll find a pair of air vents and a microUSB port for charging your phone while it is in the casing. The air vents are long and narrow to allow air to flow naturally without an active fan to keep the lenses between your eyes and the phone from fogging up. In most cases, this vent gets the job done quite well. There's still some occasional fogging, especially once the phone starts getting warm after some extended gameplay, and obviously your environment is going to have a lot to do with that. If you're in a humid place, expect more fog than someone sitting in a dry, cool room. If you have your Gear VR connected to power, expect the added heat to lead to a greater chance for fog.
If you're using a Galaxy S6 and you enjoy its existence, you should probably avoid playing games and charging at the same time. The good news is that's the only thing to say about a phone overheating in the Gear VR. The Galaxy Note 5 is playable well above the 30-minute safety limit Samsung attaches to gameplay on the Gear VR, and the Galaxy S6 only overheats if you're charging or you try to exceed 30 to 40 minutes of intense gameplay in some of the more intense games. Passive activities like watching movies had no heat issues at all on either phone, but it's still not a good idea to remain connected to this thing for much longer than the suggested limit.
Samsung did exactly what it needed to do with the Gear VR, which was address the limitations found in the Innovator Editions of the hardware and make this experience something a whole lot of people can enjoy. It's still limited to Samsung's newest phones, and there's a good chance next year's Samsung hardware won't play nice with this design, but if your face and your phone are the right shapes this hardware exceeds expectations.
Are you there, Art3mis?
Samsung Gear VR Software
Samsung's partnership with Oculus is an interesting one in that it's unlike any other relationship Samsung's mobile arm has with any other company. When you put your Samsung phone into your Samsung VR case and raise it up to your eyes, you immediately stop using Samsung software. This virtual world has been made by Oculus, and it's clear the folks at Oculus are in control. Oculus approves the list of what apps are available in the Oculus Store, and when you make a purchase in that store you're giving money to Oculus, not Samsung.
It's a sideloaded software experience mostly because it can't exist in the Google Play Store by the current guidelines, so everything that happens in this virtual environment happens either because Oculus says so or because you've stumbled across one of several methods to sideload content and still experience it in the Oculus interface. We're not going to talk too much about that aspect of the Oculus software here, but it exists and like the Oculus Store is growing almost daily.
The Oculus Store essentially is split in half between videos and games. You can sit in a virtual theater or your own Netflix-themed living room and enjoy some regular 2D content, or you can use either of several VR video apps to transport yourself to places both fictitious and real with the swipe of your trackpad. Samsung's Milk VR app is especially good for a nice variety of VR surround videos, and while Oculus Video does a great job grabbing video from just about everywhere interesting you'll probably find the content selection walks the 13+ age restriction Oculus puts on its software closely. There's no YouTube app, but Samsung's Internet Beta app fills in the gap for the most part right now. The bottom line is you're unlikely to run out of video content to watch anytime soon.
One big standout in the video side of things is the new Oculus Social Alpha app. In its current state, the app is designed to put you in a room with streams from Twitch or Vimeo in a faux theater like several others. What sets this app apart is the way other Gear VR users can join in on the viewing experience. You choose a floating head avatar, and up to five people can fill the seats of this theater, where you now have head tracking and voice interaction with those people. It's a little strange at first, but the overall idea is fun if you can find a room with decent people in it. It's an interesting direction for Oculus to take things, and it's unlikely this project will end with just five strangers in an imaginary theater. A social VR setup could be great, or it could be terrible. It's too early to know which just yet.
Gaming on Gear VR is an different matter entirely. It's not a passive experience — you need to move around a bit. In some cases, you need to get up out of your chair and spin all the way around to do what is necessary. The current Oculus Store listings include some short hack and slash games, a couple of racing titles, some space and zombie shooters, and a handful of simple physics and puzzle games. There's also an arcade beta, where you can play some classic arcade hits in a virtual arcade. It's not a massive section of games, but it's enough to feel like a complete thought and really give the impression that there's a healthy number of developers actively supporting the platform.
Many of the games are incredibly high in quality, making the experience really feel like a full game console on your face. Most notable among this list are Adventure Time: Magic Man's Head Games, Eve: Gunjack, Anshar Wars 2, Land's End, and Dreadhalls. Each of these stood out as games that really pull you in and encourage you to spin around and enjoy the world being created. Some of these games are short, being easily beatable in an hour or two, but nothing in the Oculus Store right now feels like it wasn't worth the price of admission. That's an impressive statement when you consider some of these games get up as high as $15, but really it's a testament to how much thought these games knowing the total list is so short right now that almost all new users are going to want to give them a try.
The only real downside to the Gear VR software comes in when you are reminded this is a smartphone in some plastic casing. When notifications fill the screen and the software doesn't let you do anything to address the incoming messages, or when you put the phone in the case and remember it has to be removed again so you can unlock it because you've got a fingerprint or PIN lock on board. These reminders in-world would be a lot more tolerable with some kind of system-level interface, offering up voice replies to messages or even a virtual mechanism for entering pin or pattern to unlock the phone. Oculus has nailed the virtual environment and the content around it, but this is still a phone and doing more to support that would go a long way. (You can, however, kill notifications while you're in the virtual world, should they become too much.)
Not quite OASIS, but still incredible
Samsung Gear VR The bottom line
You'll get no argument from anyone here that VR is still very much a niche thing, but through experiences like the Gear VR we're seeing more than just old things done again. This is a complete VR experience that you can stuff in a backpack and take anywhere. It's something you can share with anyone wherever you are, and the sheer volume of content available makes it something anyone with the requisite hardware should seriously consider trying just because it's fun. For $99, assuming you already have a Galaxy Note 5 or Galaxy S6 (or their edgy variants) you get to experience the first step towards social VR, and that's too cool to pass up.
That said, there's a lot about the Gear VR that needs to change beyond this initial release. Samsung and Oculus get a pass for limiting support for the Gear VR to only the highest-end new Samsung phones this year because the experience works and works well and a limited initial target is important for that to happen. Much like the Gear S2 this year, now that Samsung and Oculus can see what works and what doesn't, supporting other phones in the next release is a must if this platform is going to continue to grow and improve. Gear VR is an amazing first step, one that really only Oculus and Samsung together could have pulled off right now, and it's going to be a genuine pleasure to see this platform used around the world.
Should you buy it? Absolutely
If you own a Samsung Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge, Galaxy S6 edge+, or a Galaxy Note 5 you should seriously consider buying the Gear VR. At $100 you'll find it's a capable distraction and a fun toy, but it's also significantly more capable than anything else doing smartphone-based VR right now. If you have any interest in VR at all, you should pick one of these headsets up.