VR is likely to be the big thing of 2016 but right at the moment it’s not available to buy without long waiting lists and you’d better have a powerful – expensive – PC to get anything out of it. A couple of years Samsung saw this coming, partnered up with Oculus and came out with the Galaxy Gear VR headset Developer Edition. The headset can be thought of as a VR headset but without any electronics. You get the body, lenses, some controls and straps. What you do not get is the screen, screens or electronics. Samsung solved this by putting in the computer and screen that we all carry around – our phone.
Fast forward a year and a half and two versions and the Gear VR Consumer edition launched at the end of last year. Unlike it’s predecessors the Gear VR can handle multiple types of phone from a relatively short list. The Samsung Galaxy Note 5, S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+ can all be slotted in. Taken as a whole that’s a good proportion of the higher end smartphone market and enough to be significant.
So how well does it work in reality? Get the Gear VR and pop off the clip on front plate. Unlock your phone and adjust the slider on the headset the correct size for your phone and clip it in. Put the front plate back on and side the whole thing on your head. The first time you put your phone in the headset it will download the Oculus app and you’re off and going. The phone is controlled by a 4 direction touchpad and selector, back button and volume controls which are on the right temple of the headset.
So what can you do with it? Built in the GearVR has facilities for watching 360 degree videos, photos and for running VR apps. This also unsurprisingly includes a number of games. As the GearVR does not have the best control system more things seem to be focused on experiences than games. I’ve been to the moon and flown through the solar system, flown jets, bungee jumped, gone on roller coasters, swam under many seas and seen art galleries. There is also a built in (if a little hidden) web browser and while it might seem odd to go into VR to access the web it adds an interesting aspect – particularly when you consider that the web includes Youtube.
The system has four drawbacks. First control – it’s good for viewing and watching but as the controls are on your right temple you find your arm getting very tired after a few minutes of hard use. Running the screen and processor so hard is intensive and battery life and overheating is a problem over long sessions. The rule of thumb seems to be about 1% a minute if you are streaming content. Next the screen in the phones is very impressive but is not quite dense enough to hide its pixels held an inch or two from your eyes. Finally the software system is not quite all it should be. Some apps you can install with the headset on, some when it’s not on and there’s no indication which until you try. Some are region locked for no obvious reason. Some things stream happily and some require downloads first.
Galaxy Gear VR headset, head straps and quick start guide
Paid Extras to get a better experience: Bluetooth headphones, bluetooth controller.
Samsung is a giant Korean conglomerate formed in 1938. It manufactures a wide range of items from washing machines to computer chips to PCs but is probably most well known for its Android smart phones. It has slipped slightly from its position of dominance in that market but is still one of the major players.
The company has almost half a million employees and annual revenue of over $300 billion.
The Ergohacks Evaluation
The GearVR headset lets you access quite a wide range of apps and the likelihood is that this will gradually expand. VR as a whole is a very new space and there are a number of UI and control conventions that still need to be worked out. At the moment everyone is porting in familiar genres and experimenting with altering them.
The standout obvious use is to watch videos – either 360 or normal videos. Youtube supports the GearVR (although via the browser) and there are an increasing number of 360 videos. There is also something about watching standard rectangular videos whilst sat in a virtual movie theatre which does add to the experience. It sounds a little silly but watching home videos on what looks like a huge cinema screen does feel nice.
Productivity apps are thinner on the ground but access to the web does open a number of possibilities. I tried pairing a bluetooth keyboard and then writing part of this post while wearing the GearVR and it was… interesting. It worked but it was clearly pushing the system past what it had been intended for.
Once the phone is attached to the GearVR and the headset is on your head it is surprisingly comfortable. There is a dial at the top which lets you adjust the focus in much the same way as a pair of binoculars and everyone who we tried it with was able to get a good focus.
The space inside is large enough to fit most pairs of glasses although it does put a certain amount of pressure on the wearer’s nose in this case. I found that the most I could wear it comfortably for was about an hour after which time I was eager to get a break. I also found that I got somewhat sweaty around the padding which does not seem to be breathable.
Environment & People
Samsung has almost half a million direct employees and as a company of that size it’s not surprising that they have had some questions against their social records in the past – mainly on labor and safety regulations. The GearVR is solidly made of ABS plastic and feels like it will last well. The padding and straps are removable and changeable if needed as is (with a little work) the lenses. The limit on it’s lifespan seems more likely to be compatible with particular phones rather than it wearing out. Once it does become obsolete it can be separated in to parts – velcro straps, lenses and plastics and recycled.
If you want to get into VR you have two options – high end or low. High end has a minimum entry cost of £1500 with the Occulus Rift and possibly significantly more depending on your setup. Playstation VR and the Vive may be slightly cheaper but still very expensive. At the other end of the market is Cardboard. This can be very low cost but the lack of decent controls, no headstrap and poor (or no) lenses makes it good for a few minutes at most.
At £80 the GearVR falls within many’s disposable income and for the price delivers an amazing experience.
Requires: Samsung Galaxy Note 5, S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+
Weight: 320 grams without phone
I’m rarely as sure about an item as I am about the GearVR. Everyone who I have handed it to to try has had the same reaction and I can sum it up very easily – if you have a compatible smartphone and you are at all interested in VR then you should buy this. The headset has some flaws and it’s best as a viewer rather than something to interact with but it’s well worth the money and time. Highly recomended.
The review is based on the Galaxy Gear VR Consumer Edition kindly provided by Samsung. This article was first published on 25th Jan 2016.