Samsung Gear VR review

Samsung gets a virtual reality check

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Our Verdict

Despite its limitations, the Gear VR is a great showcase for virtual reality right now. It may not have the longevity of the Oculus Rift, but it'll play a valuable role in pushing virtual reality into the mainstream.

For

  • Decent quality VR
  • Portable
  • A handful of impressive games

Against

  • Needs the Note 4 to work
  • Tech still has some way to go
  • Library of content is small right now

In 1896, a French short film called L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat was screened to the public. As the story goes, some people were so terrified by the realism of the train coming towards them that they fled to the back of the room in fear.

Since then, nothing has quite aroused the same reaction in an audience. That is, until virtual reality. It's an experience that can be incredible, immersive and astonishingly real, and, like the Lumière brothers' movie, we're still at the start of this story.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

It's been more than two years since the Oculus Rift became one of Kickstarter's biggest success stories yet. The Rift is still a work in progress, but that hasn't stopped other players from moving forward in this area. Samsung's horse in the race, the Gear VR, is a big deal: the first and closest thing to a consumer-ready product to hit the market.

I say closest because this is still a beta product - as signified by its "Innovator Edition" subtitle - but one that's been designed in partnership with Oculus VR, using the same optical technology as the Rift. Plus the headset itself is just a conduit; the Gear VR uses the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in lieu of a display of its own.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

But Samsung isn't only first to market, it's also first to take virtual reality mobile. Ever explored the far reaches of space from the backseat of a bus? How about taking a trip to the bottom of the ocean from the comfort of your bed? Heck, take it in the bath if you want the full 4D experience (just don't get it wet).

The headset itself is reasonably affordable at $199 (about £126, AU$228) but with a catch: you need to own a Note 4 to use it, and at upwards of £550 (US$700, about AU$900) they're not cheap.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

Portability won't just make virtual reality easier to use, it'll make VR accessible to everyone. The technology is already proving itself, but virtual reality's biggest challenge is yet to come: edging out of the margins of PC gaming and into the mainstream. The question is, will Gear VR be the one to do that?

Design

The design of Gear VR sits somewhere between Oculus Rift DK 2 and Google Cardboard. The white plastic shell is moulded into the familiar ski-goggle headset design, on the back of which is an elastic strap that fits around the sides and top of your head. Even with the Note 4 inserted it doesn't feel too heavy.

For obvious reasons Samsung has kept the device as light as possible, and with a bit of strap adjusting the whole thing stays nicely in position through any vigorous head movements, without feeling like it's weighing you down.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

The focus adjustor on the top might need a bit of tweaking, especially if you're a glasses wearer. Despite the impressively low latency and high resolution virtual reality is still at a point where some people will come away feeling a tad queasy, so it's important that you're always using Gear VR at optimum clarity.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

So, how the hell do you control the Gear VR if the phone is inside it? Samsung offers two means of interaction: a touchpad and back button on the side of the headset, or an optional Android controller. Using the swipe-based touchpad is easy enough for navigating menus and interacting with some of the basic games and experiences, but as I'll get onto later, you really need a controller to get the most out of Gear VR.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

Naturally, Samsung's headset is nothing without the screen, and you'd be hard pushed to find a smartphone better than the Note 4 right now. The 2,560 x 1,440-pixel, 5.7-inch OLED display provides a sufficiently rich image. Married with that is a Snapdragon 805 processor, together making for a respectable wires-free VR experience.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

To create the optical illusion of virtual reality the Note 4 display divides into two screens that blend together again when viewed through the lenses. But while undoubtedly impressive, the limitations of the Note 4 screen are still obvious.

The resolution and latency are good but limited by a device that wasn't primarily built for virtual reality. In particularly vibrant worlds the pixels are still visible, creating a barrier to full immersion that's often hard to overlook. But in less colourful environments, such as Oculus Cinema, the Note 4's super deep blacks are impressively authentic.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

Once perfect - and come Oculus market launch, it should certainly be a lot better - VR will offer an experience that's difficult to distinguish from reality. It's so close right now, but it's not quite there.

Features and games

I hear a lot of people say that VR will need its "killer app" in order to become mainstream. I'm not so sure about that, but VR does need to be a myriad of games and experiences, and as far as that goes, Samsung's swelling virtual reality marketplace is a promising glimpse of what's to come.

The UI is rather bare-bones, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. You've got the Home menu, the Library and the Store, all of which are pretty self explanatory. Your most recently used apps will show on the home screen, while the Library offers a complete list of all your downloads with the option to filter.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

Jumping between menus is as simple as moving your head and tapping the touchpad, and just about everything can be done from within the headset, negating the need to take out the Note 4 for any reason until you're done playing.

I tried a number of different experiences during my time with the Gear VR, most of which were free and many of which required the optional controller to play. Anshar Wars taps into the most primitive of our VR desires: to fly around in space and shoot aliens. Then there's James's Legacy: The Prologue, a beautifully designed adventure game made of colourful, cuboid worlds - think an RPG Mario Galaxy - that goes against the grain by presenting itself in third person.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition review

But perhaps my most memorable experience with Gear VR so far has come from Shooting Showdown, a simple first person shooter that pits you against another random online player on a firing range.

Despite the fact their "body" was hidden the other side of a dividing wall for the duration of our contest, there was something rather awesome about sharing an immersive virtual space with another player. I know I said virtual reality doesn't need a "killer app", but the first proper VR MMO is going to be incredible.

For now, most of these are bite-size mini experiences; the sorts of things you'll keep installed for the sake of showing your friends how awesome virtual reality is, but there are only a handful that you'll go back to yourself. However, between Samsung's Oculus store and Milk VR service, I'm hopeful the library will swell rapidly.