Samsung and Oculus released the "Innovator Edition" of the mobile virtual reality platform Gear VR in 2014, a first draft of the hardware that was intended for enthusiasts and developers.
Today, the retail version is available. This is Gear VR, and it's the version of the hardware that's meant for a wide audience, or at least anyone with a Note 5, S6, S6 Edge or S6 Edge Plus. The final version of the Gear VR costs only $99.99, which is a $100 price reduction from the Innovator Edition.
Samsung and Oculus had a year to improve the product's fit and finish, software and game selection, and they put that time to good use. The Gear VR is supposed to be a mass market product, and is in fact the first retail VR headset to be released in the modern wave of VR enthusiasm.
So how is it?
It's light, not cheap
Gear VR is a virtual reality headset that depends on your phone for its computing power and screen. Your $99.99 goes towards the optics and the sensors that provide a much smoother experience than your phone's built-in motion sensors, but be aware that you do need one of the compatible Samsung phones listed above.
Samsung sent us a final, retail unit to try out. The hardware feels surprisingly light in your hand, but it avoids the cheap, creaking feeling of most plastic hardware that weighs this little. Remember, this is something that's going to be strapped to your face for long periods of time, so every bit of weight added is a big deal.
The retail Gear VR is lighter than the Innovator Edition, 318 grams compared to 379 grams, and you can feel the difference. The padding around the eyes is likewise adjusted to be much more comfortable, and your glasses now fit in the headset without being crushed against your face. The downside to the new design is that light gets in a bit around the edges, but it's easy to ignore once a game or experience begins.
Most players won't have the earlier versions of the hardware to form a basis of comparison though, so we'll just say this: The final hardware is both light and comfortable, with an optional top strap if you'd like a bit more support. Your glasses will be just fine, and the whole system is easy to wear over long sessions.
Samsung has also adjusted the touchpad on the side of the hardware with a raised circle so you can feel the "button" to tap to interact with things in VR, and since many games and experiences are operated with swipes there is now an indented cross shape on the controls.
You can now find the controller by touch much easier, and a short tutorial included in the software will get you up to speed for how the controls work, including the ability to re-orient your screen if you shift position and activate the pass-through camera so you can look around in a limited fashion without taking the headset off.
The internal fan is gone, replaced by better ventilation. I never had a problem with fog across my many playing sessions with the final hardware. The focus dial on the top of the headset feels like it has a bit more travel now, and I was able to get a sharper image with a bit of time fiddling with it.
That being said, I wish Oculus would add a test pattern into the home menu so I could take a moment and make sure I had the sharpest possible image in the shortest amount of time; as it stands I focus on a bit of text and try to make it as sharp as possible before jumping into a game.
The $99.99 retail release of the product improved nearly everything while dropping weight and price, but the one thing I miss from the Innovator Edition is the fancy plastic carrying case with a slot for your Bluetooth controller. Still, that edition cost $100 extra; you'll be able to pick up your own bag if need be with the savings, so it's a wash.
All these updates and improvements may sound slight when listed one by one, but taken together it's a large jump over the Innovator Edition. If you waited you're going to get a better, less expensive product. See, wasn't that worth it?
What about battery life?
This is an issue, as it takes a whole lot of processing power to deal with graphically intensive programs running at a solid framerate stereoscopically. Plan for between two to five hours of use, as this highly depends on what program you're using and possibly which phone. There is a micro-USB port if you'd like to charge while you play, but that also kills the wireless aspect of the device.
You're also going to notice that your phone gets very hot while playing, although the Gear VR will warn you if it gets too hot and may ask you to take a short break to let things cool down.
Can't I just get a $20 Cardboard player?
Cardboard is Google's inexpensive virtual reality platform, and the $20 or so price for a viewer is attractive. There's also been a large amount of misinformation about how Cardboard stacks up to Gear VR, and it's important to clear it up.
Cardboard uses the sensors in your phone for the head tracking, and those sensors simply aren't up to the job of providing latency low enough to make virtual reality truly great. It's a neat trick, and for an entry-level VR experience Cardboard is a fun conversation piece, but Gear VR provides a much higher quality, much more comfortable experience.
"Cardboard and Gear VR aren't in the same league," E McNeill, a developer who works extensively in virtual reality, told Polygon. McNeill created Darknet, one of the best games currently available on the Gear VR platform.
"The Gear VR uses custom sensors and a healthy dash of John Carmack's programming magic to smooth out the VR experience," he continued. "Plus, it's limited to a few high-end phones, so developers can count on a consistently fast chipset and a high-res screen. Cardboard, on the other hand, tries to work with whatever hardware you have in your current phone, and it suffers for it."
There are many technical reasons why Gear VR is a much better virtual reality experience, and those differences could be their own 1,200-word post, but it boils down to a few things.
"Maybe you don't care about technical terms like 'low persistence' or 'asynchronous timewarp,'" McNeill explained. "Maybe you don't think that a few milliseconds of latency sounds like a big deal. But I'm willing to bet that you don't like getting sick, and these features can determine whether you feel nauseous or not. Personally, I've never found a Cardboard app that felt comfortable for more than a few minutes at a time, so it's hard for me to take it seriously as a platform."
The custom hardware and sensors, mixed with the secret sauce in Carmack's mobile SDK, make Gear VR a true, comfortable virtual reality experience that can actually make you feel like you're somewhere else, rather than the uncomfortable illusion of looking into a window you get when using Cardboard. The differences are vast, and once you try Gear VR you'll find it very difficult to go back to the Cardboard platform.
This is the perfect VR experience for the mainstream
I've spent a significant amount of time with all the currently discussed VR platforms, and the Gear VR is, to date, the easiest to use and enjoy. Installation of the base Oculus app is easy: You're prompted to install it and set up an account once your phone is inserted in the hardware. From there you can purchase, download and buy games and experiences from the app itself without using the headset, or you can use the store interface in virtual reality to do the same.
While in VR the interface floats inside what seems to be a mansion by the water, so you can enjoy making your purchases in something that looks like Tony Stark's living room. It's a nice touch.
The Gear VR isn't just a well-designed piece of hardware, it's a welcoming experience that can exist purely in virtual reality. You're loaded directly into this mansion-like environment and can then jump from game to game or to another experience without taking the headset off. You can browse new content and buy it while in virtual reality. You can enter the Oculus Video app and watch any video you've taken with your phone inside your own personal movie theater.
The retail version of the Gear VR is ready
There's little education needed, and the interface is clean and easy to understand. This is a fascinating look at consumer-grade VR, and it's exceedingly simple to set up and use. The completely portable nature of Gear VR, with no wires or external hardware powering the experience, means that you can take it anyway and look around the virtual environment without worrying about being connected to a PC or gaming console.
While the retail Oculus Rift will require a powerful computer for a comfortable experience, the Gear VR only works with a few phones. This may limit the potential audience for the product, but the upside is that developers know exactly what hardware you're using to play their games. Everything I tried on the Gear VR ran well, and that ability to target specific hardware means that framerates can stay constant, which is a godsend for making sure the player doesn't get motion sickness. You don't have to worry about whether your system will be able to handle the game: If it's on the store and you have a compatible phone, you're going to be able to run it the way the developer intended.
Everything just works, and doesn't require much in the way of technical knowledge or setup. It's the most user friendly and inviting virtual reality experience currently available, and feels like a great preview of what the final Oculus Rift experience may look like, but in that case you'll be attached to your gaming PC. This is a much freer, comfortable way to experience VR.
Should I buy this?
It's been hard for virtual reality enthusiasts to spend years reading about things like the Innovator Edition of the Gear VR and the multiple Oculus Rift Development Kits while being told to wait for the final product.
But these early enthusiast and developer products were often unfinished and nearly intolerably finicky, mixed with limited software support and available games. The retail version of the Gear VR is ready, however. It feels good on your face, it's easy to set up, and the game and experience selection is impressively mature for a consumer launch. Later today I'm publishing a list of five things you should do first when your Gear VR arrives, and I had to whittle it down; there are multiple great games and experiences worth your time.
It's impossible to describe in words what it's like to strap on a headset and find yourself inside a video game rather than watching on a screen. The waiting game may have been hard, but the reward is a $99.99 headset that is comfortable, fully featured and ready to go with a variety of fun games, video content and things to explore. Stop waiting; this is the VR headset to order.