Have you tried virtual reality yet? Not many have. Still, there’s a reason why the gaming sector is jumping with excitement over this new wearable tech. If you’re just as excited and simply cannot wait until the Oculus Rift and Valve Vive come out later this year, the only choice for true virtual reality is the unlikely pairing of a Galaxy Note 4 and Samsung’s Gear VR.
The phone-powered “innovator edition” was released in late 2014 to limited fanfare, despite being the first consumer-level offering from the folks at Oculus Rift. Samsung and Oculus packed very little marketing budget into this product’s rollout, which may explain the lukewarm reception, but don’t be fooled by the soft launch. This thing makes jaws drop.
The Samsung Gear VR arrives in a sleek, plastic zip-up case, and comes packed with a white microfiber cloth, plus a couple differently sized pads to cushion it against the user’s face. The Galaxy Note 4 snaps in to the front of the headset, and makes a noise as it activates the Oculus Rift software. It also comes with a plastic visor that snaps on over the smartphone, mainly to improve aesthetics.
The Gear VR straps on by wrapping around and over the user’s head. Despite looking awkward, it’s pretty comfortable. Glasses cannot be worn with the Gear VR, but the visor has a wheel on top to adjust the focus, and it works quite well. Even so, some people with visual impairments may still have difficulty seeing clearly. The visor also features a touchpad on the right side for interacting with software, although many Oculus games require a bluetooth controller — and that’s sold separately.
One upside is that the Gear VR is the first VR headset that’s completely wireless, so the whole kit’s design makes it perfect for short demonstrations. Early-stage VR like this can become disorienting to some if the headset is worn for too long, so short periods of use are best. Having friends around helps facilitate the sharing, too. Since it’s so novel, people tend to gravitate toward the device once it gets pulled out in a group.
Trying out the Gear VR for the first time requires patience. First, you must download the Oculus store, where you get all the VR-ready software. Once you’re in, it can be hard to know where to start, because there’s a shocking amount of content already available. Some of the apps are brilliant, while others are less than inspiring.
The very best experiences are the 3D, 360-degree photo tours, which feature the highest-resolution images of any app available on the store. Horror games are also very immersive on the Gear VR, even though only tech demos are available currently.
To save time, head directly to Titans of Space, a tour of Earth’s solar system that takes about 10 minutes. Experienced wearing headphones while sitting in a swivel chair, it never fails to impress. The Oculus Cinema app, which lets users play movies from the phone’s memory card in a variety of theater settings, is also absolutely thrilling on first exposure. The sensation of actually being there in both of these apps must be felt to be understood.
Other notable mentions include Ocean Rift, which plunges users under the waves to interact with sea life up close, and Darknet, a trippy visualization of what it might look like to be inside a computer while hacking into secured files. Like Titans of Space, a swivel chair is essential to maximize the experience of these apps.
Another neat addition to the visor is the ability to tilt the micro USB dock outwards, allowing users to mount the phone in the visor without activating the Oculus software. Doing this essentially turns the Gear VR into a replacement for Google Cardboard, a cheap, DIY virtual reality platform that works with nearly any Android phone.
Unfortunately, none of the content on the Oculus store surpasses the level of novelty, and the games are very clearly mobile games. They do not convey the visual fidelity of a PC game rendered on the Gear VR’s older-but-more-impressive cousin, Oculus Rift Dev. Kit 2. The Gear VR also lacks the depth tracking capabilities of its cousin, which shaves off a significant amount of immersion by itself. It is possible to hack these capabilities in, but doing so requires a significant investment of time and up to $50 for equipment, not to mention some expert-level tech savvy.
Also: Most of the 360-degree videos are also just too low resolution to deliver any feeling of presence. That’s not a problem unique to the videos, either. Resolution is easily the Gear VR’s biggest challenge, even though the Galaxy Note 4 has a 2560×1440 display. The larger screen’s pixel density causes a fuzziness, like viewing everything through a screen door, which the VR enthusiast community has fittingly nicknamed the “screen-door effect.”
The effect is present in all the developer-oriented VR headsets floating around right now. While the Note 4 does have the best display yet for VR gaming, the tech will not be perfect until VR displays exceed 4K and mobile gaming chipsets get beefy enough to render polygons at a solid 120 frames per second in each eye, with a wider field of view than the Gear VR’s 96 degrees.
Finally, there is an occasional problem with lens fogging on the Gear VR, particularly if there’s even a hint perspiration on the user’s face. The Oculus FAQ says that it’s normal, and users should just wait for it to go away — but it usually doesn’t. That can get annoying, and it definitely breaks the immersion.
Samsung has supposedly fixed the “screen door” problem with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, simply by shrinking the Note 4’s 2K display to fit the smaller form factor. Of course, Samsung says the S6 will also get its own version of the Gear VR. Also, Oculus launched a paid-app store in the United States in March that’s giving rise to richer, deeper experiences. If enough developers finally start seeing a return on their investment, a thriving app ecosystem seems inevitable.
Until that happens, the Note 4 and Gear VR still make a great pair, even if it’s just a novelty. That’s sure to change, but for now this “innovator edition” is aimed squarely at folks who are already interested in VR and want to give it a try. At just $199, it hits a sweet spot for the early-adopter crowd. To be sure, the Gear VR is not quite up to gaming enthusiasts’ expectations, but it does pack a sweet taste of things to come.