Remember when virtual reality was supposed to become the next big thing?
Well, according to the company whose slogan for their Galaxy cellphone line is “The next big thing is already here,” the future is now.
After testing out a Star Wars-themed Google Cardboard headset late last year, courtesy of Verizon, I used my gift card from a Samsung Pay promotional to purchase the more refined Samsung Gear Vr headset for $99.99. After waiting for the item to restock, I finally received my headset and tried it out with my Samsung Galaxy Note5.
Powered by Oculus, the Samsung Gear VR isn’t the first headset the company has released. The first was an Innovator’s Edition which was sold as a glimpse of things to come and worked with a Note4. The new Gear VR works only with the latest phones — the Note5, S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Edge+. I tried plugging my Note2 into the VR, and not only does it not fit into the headset’s well due to its width, the phone doesn’t even recognize it’s plugged into anything new.
After I opened the packaging and plugged in my Note5 to the microUSB, I was instructed to download the appropriate software. Once I did that, I plugged in my phone again only to find the length of the phone wouldn’t fit into the well. I had to slide the connector to the A position — mine was very stubborn, and I had to use a soft-tip pen to push down on the button — and then it was a matter of securing the phone into place at the other end.
I had to connect my phone to the headset a couple of times because the phone has to be unlocked before you begin. So, if you’ve got a quick timer that locks your phone after a few seconds, you might want to change that so you’re not prompted to unlock your phone just as you’re putting the headset on.
Unlike Google Cardboard, the Gear VR comes with two straps — one to keep the headset attached to your face and another to keep it from sliding down. I didn’t use the vertical strap at first because I didn’t have issues, but I understand why it’s important. To get the best viewing experience, you need to make sure your eyes are positioned correctly, and that’s a matter of adjusting the headset up or down until everything looks clear through the lenses.
The headset is actually very light, even with a smartphone attached to it. The padded eyepiece doesn’t dig into your skin, and once everything is fitted, it’s just you and the screen.
There’s also a switch at the top of the headset that you can turn one way or another to sharpen the screen — something similar to what you’d find on a set of binoculars. This is great because I was able to wear the headset without my glasses — though I tried the headset with my glasses on and found it pretty comfortable.
I didn’t find the headset heavy at all, and once everything was in focus and clear, I followed the tutorial which showed me how to use the touchpad to swipe and tap. There’s also a button above the touchpad as well as an up-down toggle closer to the front of the headset.
The touchpad doesn’t have any real buttons to press. Swiping is done just by flicking your finger forward, backwards, up, or down across the pad, and it’s very responsive. The touchpad is very important in terms of navigating through the interface.
Once I felt comfortable with the controls, I completed the tutorial and started exploring the various apps. The purpose of the Gear VR is to immerse users in a 360-degree environment, and various videos showcasing the kinds of video presentations can be seen. I chose a Cirque du Soleil video which took a few minutes to download. The video began with various performers rushing towards me and taking seats to my left and right. Moving my head allowed me to see the entire theater, front to back and side to side.
Acrobats approached us, and they were lifted away to the ceiling. The other performers cheered, and I was able to take my eyes off what was happening above me to turn my head and get a view of everyone else who was watching along with me.
Check out NextVR if you want to see what kinds of events could be screened through the Samsung VR. They’ve streamed NASCAR, the US Open, and even a Presidential debate.
Gamers are going to be a big target demographic for the Samsung VRs, and a gamepad is available for purchase. Most games at the moment won’t need a separate controller — for now, there are plenty that are playable right out of the box.
You might think technology isn’t anywhere close to producing anything actually awesome, but you’d be surprised to see how amazing some of these games are. Try out Land’s End if you want something narrative and mysterious. Gunjack is a first-person shooter in space that will show you what kinds of things to expect in the near future. The graphics might not rival what’s on your PC or the latest console, but what these games do offer is an experience you can’t get until Oculus Rift releases in a few month and for $599.99.
If I could only use one app with the Gear VR, it’s Netflix — though it isn’t perfect. The Netflix app sits you in a cabin with a huge screen in front of you, so I was disappointed to find out you can’t switch to a screen-only view. At the same time, it is nice to look away from the screen every once in a while and see that you’re in a room — even if it’s virtual. This is something I can see myself doing when I’m trying to relax, lying down on the couch or bed. In that way, the Gear VR is an awesome device because it removes you from other distractions. You can’t really work on a school project and watch a movie, and you can’t juggle playing a video game and checking your Facebook every five minutes. You’re forced to put all of your focus on one thing, and in a world of social media, tech creep, and ringtones, it’s actually quite refreshing.
And because it’s a cellphone screen, you’re going to get pixels. The higher the resolution, the better the view, but nothing will beat watching an actual television screen at the moment while you’re using the Samsung Gear VR. It’s only an issue if you don’t understand the point of having a virtual reality headset — it’s an experience. As long as Samsung brings it in the content department, I think fans will be glad to have something new. The prospect of also watching 3D movies without buying a 3D television and glasses also makes this a spectacular deal as long as you have a smartphone to pair it with.
With new apps and videos being added to the Samsung store each day, it’s a comfort knowing this is a technology that won’t be going away anytime soon. The affordability has opened doors for consumers, and I can’t wait for some of the announced plans to come into effect.
The next big thing is here. Virtual reality has arrived.