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Samsung Gear VR is way better than it should be

Gear VR is a strange device, and its success or failure is going to influence any other product that aims for the same market.

It's a shell that fits around a Galaxy Note 4, using the phone for its brains and that beautiful screen, while adding better sensors to aid the head tracking and a touchpad along with a button on the side to allow basic interactions in virtual reality.

You're not connected to a bulky PC when you're wearing it, which allows you to spin around 360 degrees without worrying about getting tangled up in any cabling. I was able to spend a good amount of time inside both the development kit and the retail version of the Gear VR, and I'm ready to share some thoughts on the technology.

In layman's terms: Holy shit, it's pretty good.

Working VR

The earlier versions of the Oculus Rift have all included mobile screens more or less shoved behind the optics, so cutting out the middleman and just using the entire phone for the screen and processing power isn't a huge jump for the company. Samsung gave the Oculus team a surprising amount of access to the phone's firmware, allowing them to pull some magic to get high-quality VR over a mobile device. It works.

The Note 4 boasts a 2560x1440 screen. That resolution blows away all former versions of the Oculus Rift, and removes the screen-door effect and fuzziness that plagued earlier versions of the hardware.

You do lose positional tracking, the ability to lean in and out of a scene to take a closer look at something, but I've been told Oculus is hard at work trying to make that possible in the final "retail' version of the hardware. The product shipping this year is the "Innovator Edition" of Gear VR, a product aimed at developers and VR enthusiasts.

Taking the whole experience into account is where the product shows its magic. Oculus Connect was filled with developers who had been using the development kit of the hardware extensively, and getting a demo of their game was as easy as asking them to take the hardware out of their backpack.

The games look good, run well and provide a great virtual reality experience

The hotel was filled with press, executives and developers passing around the equipment, playing different games and sharing their plans for the device. This is a VR headset you can carry with you wherever you go, wear on a plane or use to enjoy a film in a hotel room. It's a completely immersive way to play games and consume media that allows you to block yourself off completely in the blink of an eye, and that application is very attractive in a number of situations.

The games on the device were interesting, featuring many of the titles that have come from the independent Oculus Rift space already, and we'll be talking about some of those soon. Every developer I spoke to discussed the hardships of optimizing a PC game to run on a mobile Android device, but the impressive thing is that so many of them have been able to do so effectively. The games look good, run well and provide a great virtual reality experience.

The other draw is using Gear VR as a portable media player. It ships with a program called Oculus Cinema, which allows you to watch a movie or television show in a virtual movie theater. The experience works well, and the light from the screen can be seen on the chairs around you; the whole theater lights up with an explosion or bright lights.

Another demo let you watch DreamWorks content surrounded by the penguins from Madagascar or in the middle of a body of water. It's a weird thing to watch video content in an environment designed around that content, but Oculus told me it was an easy process to create a custom viewing experience for any video content that wanted to do so.

It's all done with the touch pad on the side of the device

Why watch Game of Thrones on your home theater when you can watch it on a 50-foot display in the middle of Winterfell? Why just listen to music when you listen to it in an environment created by Harmonix that changes along with the music? I was able to demo a guided meditation experience that put me in the middle of a peaceful field, complete with gently trickling water and a calm female voice walking me through breathing exercises. The ability to carry something this small that so completely transports you to a different place is magical.

The other giant leap forward for consumer virtual reality is Oculus Home, the program that allows you to stay inside virtual reality while browsing through the applications and videos. It's all done with the touchpad on the side of the device, which allows you to swipe left and right to browse the content and then tap to launch a new game or program.

This allows you to stay comfortable inside the Gear VR and move seamlessly from experience to experience, browsing content and in the future even buying new games from within VR. During one lengthy demo I spent around 30 minutes trying a variety of different things, and jumping from game to game was smooth and fun. I never felt uncomfortable or claustrophobic. This is a huge improvement over the need to constantly remove the headset in order to launch programs from your desktop with the PC versions of the Oculus Rift, and Home can't come to the other devices soon enough.

Developers will bump up against the limitations of the Note 4, which is powerful for a mobile device but can't compare to a modern gaming PC, and it's likely that heat and battery life will be an issue for the more in-depth games and graphically intensive experience. Developers will also be able to ignore many of the issues with Android, including fragmentation, because they're developing for one device played a very specific way. If the game runs well in their studio, they know it will run well for every other player, which is a huge advantage in the mobile space.

The Gear VR delivers virtual realty in a way that's truly portable, and in many ways superior to the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2. Welcome to the future, whenever it comes. No release date or price was given, although we were told to expect the "Innovator Edition" this fall.

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