Samsung’s answer to the VR craze was to work with Oculus to create their own VR device specifically for the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Unlike the Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition headset has no wires and is not tethered to a computer, instead it relies on the phone’s processing power to make the magic happen. It retails for $200 and requires the Note 4 as it’s display.
First, let me preface this by saying I’m not much of a gamer. While I’ve dubbed myself a geek, I’m more of a video nerd than a gamer. So I’ll be talking more about the Samsung Gear VR’s potential as a device for viewing experiences rather than gaming. From what I gather, this is more likely the intended audience for the Gear VR, whereas the Oculus Rift will likely be the go-to gaming rig.
The Big Reveal
Unboxing and setting up this device was a piece of cake! Even though I glanced at the minimal instruction manual, it was definitely not even needed. Throw that thing in the trash and plug your Galaxy Note 4 into the dock, let Samsung guide you the rest of the way. With your Samsung Gear VR you’ll receive a nifty carry case, micro fiber cloth, replacement foam insert and a 16 GB micro SD card you’ll need later.
Note: some phone carriers may require updates to the Note 4 to work with Samsung Gear VR, like we had to with Verizon. If you are purchasing a Note 4 for the first time you can have them install the latest updates in the store. Don’t forget!
I was up and running in about 10 minutes after opening the box. When you open an app or video for the first time, it will play the Introduction to VR content (which is amazing and fun to watch) along with the basic tutorial on how to use the device. The famed content that everyone in the VR production industry is talking about from Felix & Paul is featured in this first introduction, which was a pleasant surprise because up until now you could only see these videos in person at events. It was a first for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Before anything starts, on screen instructions will tell you how to calibrate your focus, which is as easy as moving the dial on the top. Menus can be swiped and scrolled by using a touch pad near your temple, with a back button above that to exit apps or menus. Convenient volume controls are placed on the side as well. When you move the device away from your face, it pauses what you were doing. We’ve had proximity detection for a while now, so it’s great to see this feature being used to bring better user experience to HMDs.
This was so much different than the hell of a time I had unboxing an Oculus DK2 a while back. With all the wires, configuration settings, software installation, demos that didn’t work (and some that did) I was frustrated and ready to throw in the towel after about an hour. Just like Oculus Rift, Samsung warns that this is not really meant to be a consumer product, but I'm not really sure if the warning is necessary. It’s so simple, anybody should be able to set this up and be experiencing VR in minutes.
The device was comfortable enough. After wearing it for 20-30 minutes I don’t notice any eye fatigue or motion sickness. The top strap is a bit cumbersome, but it may be a corner case for me. I have to push the Gear VR as far as possible down my nose to get a clear picture, so the top strap is actually causing it to creep back up and ruin my ideal viewing angle. This could be a flaw, or it could just be my oddly misshapen head. Either way, the top strap is removable, problem solved. Another issue was constant fogging of the lenses, but once the device has “warmed up” the fogging doesn’t tend to come back after wiping it clean a couple times with the supplied microfiber cloth. So it’s not a problem if you intend to use it for a little while, but it will be an issue if you are demonstrating VR to friends and constantly removing and replacing it.
The User Interface
Definitely the most intuitive user interface in VR to date. You shouldn’t have to fumble around with closing and launching apps, tapping the screen with your fingers, etc. Those of us who have tried to use (some) apps in Google Cardboard or a Durovis Dive know the feeling. The Samsung Gear VR allows you to fully navigate content without ever taking off the device. That’s how they melt your brain and control your mind! I kid, but seriously… that would be a good start!
Finding your way around is easy, menus are presented as floating cards on a 3D stage and you can direct your view (the cursor) towards what you want to select. A quick tap on the touch pad will launch the app you’ve selected. Remember those time-wasting rotating 3D product menus on websites that took forever to load? Finally this is a context where this kind of navigation is useful. The tracking is very responsive and snappy, although the device does not have advanced “lean in” head tracking as seen with the Oculus. This basically means Gear VR knows which direction you look but can’t detect that you have leaned forward, backward, etc.
By pressing and holding the back button, a utility menu comes up which allows you to adjust basic settings such as brightness. You can also activate a pass-through camera to see what’s in front of you through the phone’s camera, which is helpful if you are reaching for your headphones or a nice cold IPA.
Although Samsung bundles a bluetooth control pad with the device for an extra charge, I’ve found that a large percentage of apps and games don’t require it. Ours is on backorder, so perhaps I’ll revisit this section later.
Oculus 360 Video
This is one area where I’m surprised the Gear VR was lacking. Of the 7 or so 360 video examples, only 2 of them are actually video. The rest are all CG and video game related, and in my opinion miscategorized. There are thousands of 360 videos available right now, many of which are amazing. Some are even in the Oculus Share database now but were not included in the Gear VR release, what gives?
What they do have is definitely fun to watch and worth checking out (the video, not really the CG). The tour of Iceland takes you in and around amazing scenes and right into the base of a waterfall. The 360 Tours Trailer video takes you up close and personal with lions, up in a hot air balloon and treats you to some amazing views. Still, I think the Samsung/Oculus team could have done a better job at finding and licensing more 360 video content. It's unfortunate that more superior content from producers like AirPano or MakingView are not available, if they were I'd still be dumbfounded and glued to this device. But that’s cool, I can just slip my phone into another HMD instead.
One area that's definitely not lacking are the 3Dx360 videos, these are in a class all their own and can be found in the store tab. Two experiences are available; Cirque Du Soleil and Strangers with Patrick Watson. I found the former to be much more enjoyable. Unlike the other video content, you'll notice a very distinct depth to everything surrounding you, it's a truly immersive experience. You'll see some of this in the introduction to VR the first time you use Gear VR as well.
Oculus 360 Photos
360 photos look amazing in the Samsung Gear VR, that’s no surprise to panoramic photographers because we’ve already been looking at them in other HMDs. Does the Samsung Gear VR really add much to the experience? The UI is nice and offers a good way to navigate between photos, but with all of the new SDKs becoming available I’m sure this will be commonplace for all VR headsets. Still, VR is bringing incredible panoramic photography into the spotlight and Samsung Gear VR is leading the charge.
A big shout out to all of the incredible photographers who are part of the 360Cities community who had their work licensed and made available in the Gear VR release! When you look at photos in the Gear VR, be sure to notice the menu on this section moves up and down as well as side to side. Yep, there are tons of photos! In the future, the ability to add our own through the interface or some kind of sharing platform would be nice.
I’ll admit I thought this feature sounded absolutely stupid the first time I heard about it. Why would anybody want to sit in a virtual theater? But then I tried it! It’s amazing, it’s like having your own personal 3D theater right in front of your face. There’s no children making noise, nobody having a 10 minute wrestling match with a candy wrapper, no gum stuck to your shoe… just you and the movie. I can see myself kicking back on an airplane watching a feature film. Your seat is the best seat in the theater.
The theater itself looks incredibly detailed, I had to reach over and grab at my desk to remind myself where I was. Even better, they’ve got 4 different theater settings to choose from. I can only hope that movies purchased through Google Play can be watched here in the future (at the same price, hint hint). Currently you can choose from a handful of trailers (some 3D) or load video files from your phone. The 3D trailers are in fact 3D, that’s 3D in 3D, so many Ds!
Games in the Oculus Store
A handful of games are available in the initial release. Many of these are pretty basic “look at this, shoot at it” type of games or phone games converted to 360. They’re mostly demos, so as soon as you start to get the hang of it you'll be finished. If you are like me, you might get bored long before that happens.
Particularly I enjoyed Anshar Wars because the controls reminded me of StarFox, Ikarus was fun as well but it felt a little bit odd controlling a third person character while floating above. Proton Pulse was a lot of fun, it's basically the classic game breakout but for VR. It's also a bit on the trippy side with all of the lights and colors, it feels like classic arcade... on acid. I can't comment on the games that require a control pad because we don't have one yet. Games aren't really the reason I got the Gear VR, so I'll keep it short and sweet for now.
There's no native feature to load your own 360 content. While there’s an app that will play video content from the phone called VR Gallery, you can choose any file but it won’t play back 2:1 ratio video in a sphere. I think the app is designed for watching your homemade cat videos instead. It's the same for panoramic photos. Perhaps an upcoming feature should detect a 2:1 aspect ratio and ask if you'd like to view the content as a sphere? It would be nice!
While there's no ability within the UI to load your own content, you can add 360 videos and 360 photos (as cube faces) to the folders on the memory card that came with the device. Look under the Oculus folder for Oculus 360 Video and Oculus 360 Photos. I'm glad they left this door open considering that the Gear VR will probably become my go-to device for demoing our content.
Provided you can get an app available in Oculus Share and approved by Samsung, you could probably add video experiences that way as well or create an app to show a library of your content, but it’s unknown as of now how long that process takes and what the criteria is. I will say that I definitely did not find some apps that I thought should be available by some producers I know, apparently they either didn’t make the cut or they’re playing the waiting game. For now you've either got to manually load other content on your memory card or use a different HMD if you'd like to see anything more than the handful of demos offered in this initial release.
Is this perfect VR? Not yet. You can still see pixels, even with the amazing 2,560x1,440 pixel 5.7-inch OLED display display on the Note 4. They’re much less visible in animations and video games than in live action video. There’s also visible chromatic aberration and you’ll notice fuzzy edges and focus will tend to drift as the device moves on your face. It’s like being there, but some things are just a bit off. I think we’re still a year out or more from seeing 4K displays on phones in the consumer market, but the technology will get there. Even still, it’s mind blowing as it is. We have a ways to go, but this is a great start.
Should you buy one? If you already have the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, you’re only $200 away from enjoying a Gear VR and the thought of buying one might not be too far-fetched. Although some folks may feel it’s a tad bit pricey if you have to buy the phone as well, especially if you pay the $700 full retail price tag. But if you have to be on the cutting edge and have the latest and greatest toys, you won’t be disappointed. If you are budget conscious, you may just as well enjoy any phone with a nice display in a Google Cardboard or another HMD.
All in all it was a wonderful experience but it all went by way too fast. I feel like I need more and I can't wait to see what's coming down the pipe!
- Incredibly easy to setup
- Snappy user interface that’s easy to understand
- New content you can’t get anywhere else
- Comfortable for long-ish periods of time
- 3Dx360 video looks amazing
- Fogs up after a few minutes
- Lack of content
- Many third party apps seem to be MIA in initial release
- Proprietary “Apple style” app store (c’mon now, we don’t do this with Android)
- Only 1 (expensive) phone supported