The Samsung Gear VR is a self-contained, portable, high-quality virtual reality gaming headset. It's available now. You shouldn't buy one.
The $200 piece of hardware is a shell with optics and more advanced sensors than standard smartphones. It's a simple system to set up: You just attach your Galaxy Note 4 — the only phone that works with the device — and then adjust the straps to get a comfortable fit.
The proximity sensor sees your face and launches the Oculus Home program, allowing you to browse games, videos and experiences while inside virtual reality. Right now the Galaxy Note 4, which retails for around $700 unsubsidized, is the only phone compatible with the device.
This isn't like the failed experiments that have plagued the past 20 years of virtual reality; this is technology that actually makes you feel as if you're inside the virtual world of each program.
It's an impressive achievement in technology and usability, and is superior to the PC-driven virtual reality headsets created by Oculus in many ways. But it's also painfully clear that those of us who purchased the first generation of this hardware are guinea pigs. The Gear VR is functional, but that's all. It's apparent that this release of the hardware, called the "Innovator Edition" and aimed at developers and hardcore enthusiasts, is a first draft.
It's tough to evaluate the system, especially knowing that the software and ultimately the hardware will likely see substantial upgrades in the near- to medium-term future. Every positive comes with an equally off-putting negative.
The Galaxy Note 4 screen runs at a 2560x1440 resolution with a latency of under 20 milliseconds. This leads to the best picture ever seen in a consumer virtual reality device, with smooth head tracking that lessens the nausea of past Oculus Rift development kits while giving you the sense of being inside each game or experience.
Using the Gear VR — complete with the virtual reality launching program that allows you to browse new content, download new games and videos, and launch whatever you want to play without taking the headset off — is a huge step up from the dismal experience of launching games on your desktop PC and then putting on the headset.
The fact it's completely self-contained means you can throw it into a backpack and take virtual reality with you. It's an amazing achievement in technology, and it's strange to think there is now a consumer virtual reality device that you can bring along while traveling, or simply pack in a small bag to demo for others. It's an accessible, fun device that doesn't require you to tinker with your PC. If you have a Galaxy Note 4, you know you're going to have the best possible experience with the Gear VR.
There is no working store for Gear VR content, so the few pieces of content on the device are free if the developers are feeling generous, but most are merely demo versions of larger games with no way to buy the full version.
It's unclear when the store is going to launch, and it's likely the full games will be held until developers can actually make money on the platform. Launching without a working payment system is one of the most telling indicators of how early we are in the life of the Gear VR.
There is still no "best" way to control games in virtual reality, but the Gear VR comes with a touchscreen and a "back" button near your right temple, allowing you to control many games and the system's UI with a series of taps and swipes. It's intuitive and feels great in action, plus the act of tapping your temple to interact with your games kind of makes you feel like Cyclops.
There are some games that require a physical controller, and the Gear VR will accept any Bluetooth gamepad that's compatible with the Galaxy Note 4. I use the Moga Pro myself, and found it easy to set up and get working.
The headset is a bit heavier than is optimal, due to the phone being held in the front of the device. There's no easy fix for this until the Gear VR headset or the phone that powers it lose weight, and there's not much fat on either device. Having a self-contained virtual reality headset is nice in many ways, but the trade-off will always be weight.
The straps can be a bit tricky to adjust well and the Gear VR is nearly impossible to use with glasses; the official paperwork warns against it, in fact. While I can comfortably wear my glasses with my Oculus Rift development kits, I find myself putting my contacts in before I use my Gear VR.
The use of a phone, even one as powerful as the Galaxy Note 4, also introduces problems. Long playing sessions can lead to overheating issues. You'll be warned to remove the phone from the unit and let it cool down, and you'll only get a few hours out of the battery.
This is an issue if you're using the Gear VR on the road and want to keep using your phone. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey suggested that Gear VR users order a second battery for those situations, and luckily Samsung sells replacement batteries for a low price. Still, it's not an ideal solution, although it is one that would be impossible with Apple devices.
It's harder to overlook how uncomfortable the hardware can be on the bridge of your nose, and no amount of adjusting the straps seems to fix it. I'm in the process of modding my Gear VR with a soft nose rest to alleviate some of the discomfort, but for $200 you shouldn't have to do so to be comfortable in longer sessions.
It will get better
The hard problems, or at least most of them, have been solved. The store is coming, more games are on the way and the second-generation unit that will ultimately replace this one will likely be a much more comfortable headset.
The fascinating thing is that portable virtual reality is here, albeit with some problems, and the overall effect of using the Gear VR borders on the amazing. You feel like you're inside these environments, and the games and demos run at a rock-steady 60 frames per second, allowing for ultra-smooth head tracking.
Oculus was given unprecedented access to the Galaxy Note 4 firmware and even worked with Samsung during the design of the phone, and many of the games and demos feel like a magic trick; they seem to be much more advanced than what you'd expect out of even the latest phones. Blog posts that discuss the work that goes into optimizing these games are becoming common, and the work developers have done on the hardware, even in games available at launch, has been very impressive.
Until then the promise is impressive, but the utility is limited
"It's been a long journey to get here with Samsung, but also within Oculus. When we started doing duct tape prototypes of a drop-in headset and [were] starting to talk to Samsung, it was a totally different product," Oculus vice president of product Nate Mitchell told Polygon. "The question was how good it could be, and obviously [Oculus chief technical officer John] Carmack believed it could be very, very good and continued to push and push and push, both internally and technically."
The work Carmack has done with the Gear VR and Oculus' mobile SDK is a revelation. I've had my Gear VR unit for a week now, and there have been multiple moments where the device feels magical.
You can explore 360-degree photos of Mars, and you feel as if you're standing on the planet's surface. There is a 3D, 360-degree video you can play that takes place in a musician's studio as he works on a song, then takes a break to light a cigarette and talk to his dog. There is a sense of intimacy to watching video in this way, in being able to look in any direction and explore the environment from a fixed position. It felt like hanging out in the room with a friend.
Then there's the Oculus Cinema app, which allows you to watch your own movie files in MP4 format in a giant virtual movie theater or even on a screen on a recreation of the Moon. The illusion of sitting alone in a big theater, watching a film on an even bigger screen, is immediate and impressive. The resolution is high enough that watching content for long periods of time in this way, completely free from distraction, is not only possible, but pleasant.
For now, however, you need to bring over your own ripped content or just watch videos you shoot with the Note 4, as there's no way to stream from Netflix or purchase movies directly to watch on the big screen.
"Eventually it could hook into systems like Netflix," Oculus founder Palmer Luckey told Polygon. "Eventually it will have to for a mass-market consumer device. You can't expect consumers to be ripping DVDs and loading them into folders in Gear VR."
Until then the promise is impressive, but the utility is limited. This is a theme with the Gear VR.
You can see if someone is calling you or sending you a text message while in VR, which is a very helpful trick, but as of today there is no way to respond to the messages or to take a call while in VR. You give up use of your phone, as a phone, while playing a game. This feature can likely be added in with software updates, and is yet another area in which the device will improve in time.
We'll be writing more about the games and the content available for the Gear VR right now. It's clear that the Innovator Edition is a strong first step into portable virtual reality, but the hardware and software still have a way to go before they're fully baked. It's also worth noting, if it matters to you, that there is no way to wear the hardware without looking like goofy as hell.
Samsung wasn't willing to comment on the number of units sold since launch, nor would they talk about the timing of the store's launch, but they said that sales weren't the important part. During these early days of consumer virtual reality, the important thing is learning about usage patterns and getting the early adopters accustomed to using the technology daily.
"I think the thing that's most important to us is the people who buy it, like it," Nick DiCarlo, the vice president of immersive products and virtual reality at Samsung, told Polygon. "That it's a product they keep using on a regular basis. If it sits on their shelf, that means it didn't meet the promise of what we're trying to do."
He may not have much to worry about. There is a small but growing community of Gear VR enthusiasts, and I've been using the headset daily since I've received it. There are things that need to be expanded or fixed, but Samsung and Oculus are clearly on the right track. When we say you shouldn't buy this, we mean you shouldn't buy it now. If the Gear VR is this good this soon after the launch of a first-generation product, it's only going to get better.
"This isn't about volume today," DiCarlo said. "There is no existing virtual reality behavior. We're really starting from scratch."