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Gear VR fixes one of virtual reality's most annoying problems

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Virtual reality can make your few moments of downtime feel surreal.

Last evening I was floating a few meters underwater, surrounded by half-submerged hunks of ice and Narwhals. I was "playing" a sort of passive underwater experience on the newly-released Gear VR, Samsung's portable virtual reality headset, and the wireless nature of the device allowed me to stand comfortably in the middle of my living room, hands slightly outstretched to keep my balance.

The demo, called theBlueVR, is around five to 10 minutes long, and with good quality headphones it's very easy to get lost inside the calm underwater world. Virtual reality has quickly become part of my daily relaxation habits, and having a portable device in which to escape for a few minutes has become an effective coping mechanism for the stresses of the day.

The problem is that when you're lost inside of virtual reality, there is no easy way for someone to get you out. Loud noises are mostly blocked out by the headphones, and having someone physically touch you can be startling.

My wife has grown frustrated with the fact that I'm more less unreachable while inside these games. That's good in some ways — being alone with my thoughts is part of the point — but being completely cut off is also a problem if one of the kids starts crying or some other emergency happens.

There is no easy way for someone to get you out

Gear VR uses the Galaxy Note 4 for the system's screen and brains, and it keeps the phone aspect of the device running even when you're playing a virtual reality game. This leads to very surreal situations; during my swim with the Narwhals I noticed a floating phone icon a few feet from my head, a bit above and to the left of my gaze. In other words the icon existed in three dimensional space within the world, but only in my peripheral vision.

I could have chosen to ignore it, but I turned my head to look at the icon, and the phone spread apart in the virtual world to display a picture of my wife and her name so I knew who was calling. It's a very strange sensation to have message from the "real" world injected into the UI of the virtual world, but it's effective. It didn't pull me out of the experience, I could choose not to be distracted by it, and the act of finding out who is calling is all handled by your head movements. It feels natural, and didn't pull me out of my relaxation.

You can likewise read text messages while playing a game or watching a movie in the virtual theater, and they pop up on a screen that floats in your peripheral vision until you turn your head to look at it. You can also turn on a "do not disturb" mode to keep these interruptions turned off, but having a low-impact way for my wife to send me messages has gone a long way to make virtual reality more comfortable.

As of now there's no way to respond; you can't pick up the phone or respond to a text, but one-way communication is a large improvement from being completely cut off from the outside world. It feels like tiny dispatches from the physical world into the mental world of virtual reality, and it allows you to feel connected with reality while not being actively bothered by it.

When I'm swimming with a whale and enjoying the sun filtering down through the water it's easy to ignore the small thought bubble that's telling me a baby needs their diaper changed, but it's good to know it's there.