Virtual reality is going to be big. Industry estimates suggest that nearly 10 million virtual reality units will be sold this year. 10 million is not a small number but it is bound to even get bigger next year and the year after that more so with the arrival of devices “made for VR” thanks to Google’s Daydream.
For now, though, there are few options when it comes to exploring the virtual world using our mobile devices. The most widely available solutions include Samsung’s Gear VR headset and the $15 Google Cardboard. The likes of Alcatel are further contributing to the space by providing free cheap headsets for use with their devices.
What is drawing users to mobile VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR I have been using for the last one month over other pieces of hardware that can be used to simulate virtual environments is the portability and, mainly, the cost.
Devices like the PlayStation VR, the Oculus VR and the HTC Vive are not exactly what you’d call portable. I have used both the Oculus VR and the HTC Vive and while they are of excellent quality and definitely what every hard core gamer and geek will likely settle for, they don’t come cheap. The HTC Vive, for instance, costs $800 and you will either need to find other pieces of hardware like a capable computer for a similar amount or more, again. Not exactly the kind of cash that one has lying around just like that.
Before VR gets to that point where the ordinary consumer can spend that much, there is an easy place to start. On what everyone has and is using: smartphones.
On smartphones right now, Samsung’s Gear VR headset is the most compelling hardware available.
In the box
One gets a warranty card, a user manual (very important in this case unlike the phone manuals which you never bother to go through), a front cover, straps and the Gear VR itself.
In order to use the Gear VR, as already stated, one needs one of Samsung’s recent premium smartphones: the Galaxy Note 5, the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+ and the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge.
The setup process is easy. Once the straps are in place, slot in the device using the device holders on the left and right and get started.
An onscreen walkthrough makes sure you are informed of the basics – like, for instance, that you should take periodic breaks and you shouldn’t let minors handle the equipment and so on and so on – then you are good to go.
For the Gear VR, I have used, interchangeably, a Samsung Galaxy S6, a Samsung Galaxy S7 and a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge to test it. As you can note, that’s all Samsung premium hardware.
That is one of the Gear VR’s biggest downsides. That it can only work with a few select high-end Samsung smartphones is its biggest letdown. Then again, there are standards if the quality of VR is to be maintained. The compatible devices have the desired high-resolution displays and other hardware capable of delivering an uncompromised virtual reality experience.
Even with the Quad HD displays on the Galaxy S6, S7 and S7 Edge, one still has to take breaks in between interactions with the Gear VR. And the display is not at all crisp but one can adjust it using the focus adjustment wheel to make things bearable but still…
As I would later learn, some virtual reality apps and games like Temple Run VR, for instance, are better enjoyed using game pads The Gear VR does not have an official game pad (though that should be coming soon) but you can find some that work. It’s not a big deal but it is something that would be convenient.
The other thing one may need depending on where they spend their time acting like a zombie immersed in another world is headphones. When I first interacted with the Gear VR early in the year, I had the head gear paired with Samsung’s Level Over headphones. During the last one month, I have paired the devices I have tested the Gear VR on with the Gear Circle, Samsung’s Bluetooth earbuds. Since sound output from the Gear VR can be quite loud – and you need it loud to urge you on when you’re fully immersed – these provide the perfect escape and make sure you’re not interfering with those around you.
Navigating the virtual world without a controller of any sort means constantly tapping the touchpad on the right side of the Gear VR repeatedly when doing things that require full interaction. I found myself doing this when turning left or right in Temple Run VR and swiping up when jumping ditches in the same game to avoid being eaten up by the infamous temple monkeys. That can get tiring over time. The same is the case with the back button located on top of the touchpad.
Virtual reality content – apps and games – can be downloaded from the Oculus Store which comes preloaded in all the supported Samsung devices.
The Gear VR’s biggest problem as I found out is not in the hardware (even though something can still be done about the display’s density). It’s in the software. The content available for the platform.
There isn’t much to pick from. This is understandable since mobile VR is still in its nascent stages but it is frustrating. And when you find the really good games, they cost quite a lot. You may have to spend between $7 and $10 for some nice VR apps (each). Even more, if you factor in the in-app purchases.
Regardless of the Gear VR’s individual platform shortcomings, nothing compares to the VR experience
That notwithstanding, I was still able to enjoy every moment of my interaction with the Gear VR. This is important because thanks to my long interaction with the same device previously and other VR devices as already highlighted, I was able to get past the wow factor of virtual reality, the bit where everything in the immersive surroundings surprises you, and get to see more of its ins and outs. Even then, I was still mindblown by the much that can be explored virtually.
There are apps and services we use on a daily basis or we’ve used before that have tapped the power of the virtual world and 360-degree content that consuming them on the Gear VR is most likely one of the things most people will do. For instance, you can take a peek at what’s new on Netflix using the Gear VR complete with a living room or movie theatre experience depending on what you prefer. Or you can just sign in to your Facebook account and enjoy 360-degree content like the popular Game of Thrones opening sequence or the sweeping view of the Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 hub with Emirates Airline’s Airbus A380 fleet parked neatly in the background.
Virtual reality thrives in the way it is able to fully immerse you in another world and make you interact with it. In the absence of external controllers, this means using the touchpad, as already highlighted, as well as your head using the sensors on the headset.
Nothing comES CLOSE to the feeling you get when you get transported to worlds far far away
When playing Cosmos Warfare, for instance, all that one needs to do in order to destroy alien ships and save the planet is swing their head and focus firmly on the ships to tear them apart using firepower. It’s exhilarating, to say the least.
I got to use a car showroom app that showed me around several Ford vehicles and through it I could inspect and try out one or two things. Imagine walking into a car dealership in town and being able to do this to explore car models that are not available locally like say the Camaro? We’ll get there when the platform comes of age locally but it’s some food for thought for local businesses and how they can enhance their customer experience. More so the luxury brands. A whole unexplored world awaits. Coming to think of it, virtual reality, fueled by easily accessible and affordable devices like Samsung’s Gear VR will redefine the entire retail experience forever.
The device does heat up when plugged into the Gear VR for too long even though that is to be expected given the intensity. While this is not much of an issue on the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, the Galaxy S6 does take some beating. The one thing that Samsung totally got right on the Galaxy S7 is that despite all the heavy-lifting going on when one is fully immersed in the virtual world, the device’s performance is the last thing one needs to worry about.
- The comfortable foam cushioning makes sure one is very comfortable as it hugs your face and cheeks and helps keep fatigue away.
- Since being in VR mode drains the battery fast, the VR can take care of itself by being plugged in using the microUSB port on the headset. When the attached device is not in use in VR mode, instead of powering the Gear VR, the smartphone is charged instead. A win-win situation.
- I like that one can, in the settings, opt to see through the lenses and the device when the front cover is not in place. It is not advisable – you are warned about it – but it comes in handy when you want to be aware of your immediate real-world surroundings without removing the head gear itself.
- It is easy to set up.
- The price! Samsung Kenya has been giving the Gear VR for free with most purchases of the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge starting with when the two devices went up for pre-order back in late February. Still, the Gear VR can be bought for Kshs 10,000, a far cry from what it costs to get similar hardware from the competition like LG’s 360 VR headset. It also happens to be the only VR high-quality headset one can easily access in the country.
- You need some really expensive hardware to pair it up with the Gear VR. The cheapest device that one can buy in order to use the Gear VR, the Galaxy S6, costs at least Kshs 52,000. It makes sense to pick up the Gear VR if Samsung is giving it to you for free as part of a purchase of one of its premium smartphones or if you already have one of the compatible devices else, it may not be within the reach of many.
- Like every other mobile VR headset out there, latency, the microseconds between action and reaction in the virtual world is noticeable. This is one of those things that Google hopes to reduce with Android Daydream. It is also something that we can expect to be better in the next Gear VR. The device, after all, has the blessings of Oculus, the current boss of the VR space.
- The in-VR display is a bit grainy. Not as grainy as when you use other VR headsets on other devices with displays far inferior to what you have on the Galaxy S7 but grainy enough for you not to fancy wearing the Gear VR past the recommended half hour breaks.
- RIP battery…
- Content is still an issue. There is so much more VR can do. It’s not all about games and some fun apps. But where is that content? As the platform grows, content will definitely come but for now, it’s still an issue. And what’s with all these studios submitting demo content? I installed the Jurassic World app expecting some game or something only to find a demo. The same is true of other easily recognizable titles like Avengers.
I could bemoan the cost of VR content as well but I choose not to go that far other than just highlighting it. This is because none of the big name developers and studios has a title worth spending money on. What we have on the Oculus Store are lots of independent developers putting a lot of time, effort and their own personal resources and as such, they need every support from the Gear VR user base to encourage them to create even more interesting content as well as attract others.
The Gear VR is an interesting piece of hardware that you should definitely try out if you can. There is no excuse not to if you happen to own any of Samsung’s recent high-end smartphones since there isn’t a better solution out there. That Samsung has locked access to just its own device limits users and could be the reason many may not consider it in the first place. Then again, Samsung is using it as an incentive to buy into not just its hardware but the ecosystem it is building as evidenced by its opening up of the former Milk VR site to everyone.
Virtual reality and augmented reality (as evidenced by the huge gains made by Pokémon Go) is the present and the future. Anything that can take us from our troubled world to another where we have full control is totally welcome. As such, we’ll see more virtual reality gear coming out for all segments of the market not just because we would’ve discovered more fans to play around virtually but because VR opens a whole world of possibility. Can you imagine how high school Biology classes can be so much fun using VR units? Or sports training?
The Gear VR is, in my opinion, a great way to start exploring the future today. It is appropriately priced and easily accessible. The content will come, no doubt about that. It has everything but its limited compatibility with most devices going for it. Probably that is an area Samsung would want to give a second look before releasing its next generation of virtual reality hardware.