Oculus launched the official Netflix app for Gear VR today, and it's prominently featured on the virtual app store. I grabbed my Gear VR and spent around 15 minutes exploring the application, curious about what it's like to stream video from within virtual reality.
What's fascinating about the experience is that Netflix could have put you anywhere, but strangely decided to create a sort of rustic cabin look for your environment. There is a coffee cup on the table in front of you, and a Bojack Horseman poster is hung above the virtual television. The application uses the standard Netflix UI on the screen; you simply look to move the cursor and tap the touchpad on the side of the Gear VR to make your selections.
This is interesting for a first step for Netflix, but it's missing basic features
The cabin environment was a bit frustrating, I didn't find it comfortable and the TV wasn't quite large enough to be impressive nor far enough away to be comfortable. If you look straight up you can enter the "Void Theater," which basically puts a floating image in front of your eyes, outside any environment except for a dull gray color.
You can adjust the size of the screen to make it larger or smaller, and even turn on a "travel" mode that maps the middle of the screen with your gaze so the image doesn't stray if you're on a plane or car that's turning.
This isn't great
The best thing about watching video in virtual reality is the isolation factor. I was able to blot out the entirety of the press room and get lost inside a film, and that's a neat trick when you're traveling or want to focus exclusively on video content. What I wanted was a movie theater environment, but we're stuck with either an empty gray void or a strange house in the mountains.
This is interesting for a first step for Netflix, but it's missing basic features. I'd love more environments, or the ability to change the color in the void theater. I'd also like to be able to adjust not just the size of the screen but how far it is from you; there just isn't enough control over the virtual screen to find the sweet spot for most viewers.
It's also worth pointing out that creating this at all was much more complicated than it may seem at first; John Carmack wrote an extensive post about what it took to get this app running well.
It's neat that this exists, and with the retail version of the hardware launching at $99 we're close to the Gear VR becoming a mainstream product, but there simply needs to be more options for this app to be as good as it needs to be for people to watch video in virtual reality for long periods of time.
Allowing Netflix streaming inside the existing Oculus Cinema app, which offers many more environments and options, would actually solve many of these issues, but it's unlikely Netflix will allow its content to leave its own app. It's also likely we'll see updates to the app as the retail hardware gets closer to launch.
With a few updates this could be amazing, for now it's a bit of a letdown, even for a surprise launch in the middle of Oculus Connect.