Testing: Samsung Gear VR "Consumer" Release

By Norman Chan

Three weeks of using mobile VR for watching video and playing games.

Gear VR is here. Actually, it's been around for quite a while in the form of the Gear VR Innovator Editions, which we've tested. But on November 19th, Samsung and Oculus made the official consumer launch of the Gear VR headset. The newest era of virtual reality, which we've seen in development over the past three years, is finally facing its first consumer market test. And for this $100 accessory, the purchasing decision is actually pretty easy. If you have a Samsung Galaxy S6 or Note 5 phone, Gear VR is absolutely worth buying. No doubts there. The more relevant question is whether Gear VR is worth investing in a new phone, since its real cost is the price of the headset and a $500+ smartphone.

Three weeks into its launch, I'm still unsure whether Gear VR is worth that kind of investment. This consumer launch is as much about software as it is about the hardware. Three weeks in, we've seen not only the breadth of content developers and producers have made for Gear VR, but also the pace of software releases. And three weeks in, we're getting a better sense of what life is like when there's another screen at our disposal for entertainment and content consumption.

You can call virtual reality a new platform, but one way to think about it is that it's just another screen, like your phone, tablet, TV, and computer monitor. All of those screens compete for your attention. Some of those screens work in concert, and some work better in specific contexts, or for specific types of content. As Tested readers know, the promise of virtual reality is that it transcends being just a screen, and that it can simulate a space. When we imagine the metaverse, we're talking about a digital space that our minds can experience, inhabit, and interact with. That feeling of presence requires that your body movements be tracked positionally in space--as we've seen with the Rift prototypes and HTC Vive, every additional point of positional tracking is a presence multiplier.

Gear VR's rotationally tracked hardware and corresponding software doesn't deliver any positional tracking; it just supports rotational tracking. But using that movement data, its trick is using the small screen of your phone to simulate a much bigger screen--one that wraps 360 degrees around your head. In this flavor of VR, the canvas on which content can be displayed is amplified with clever software. Just as older Sony and Zeiss headsets approximated the look of a large living room TV in front of you, Gear VR and mobile VR HMDs can simulate the scale of a massive IMAX screen or bigger. That's a big canvas for developers and content creators to work with.

With the consumer launch of Gear VR, Samsung released a new Gear VR headset. It's lighter than the Innovator Edition headsets, and supports both Galaxy S6 and Note phone sizes. I've been doing all of my testing on the GS6 Innovator Edition headset, which is functionally the same as the new headset. What matters more is the content made available for this launch. November 19th was also a deadline for developers who've been experimenting with HMD entertainment and experiences at game jams and with the early adopter community on the Oculus Share site (now named Oculus Concepts). The hardware fundamentals of Gear VR have been in place for a while now; what's new is amount of stuff you can use with it, and how using mobile VR feels as a consumption platform. Let's take a look at those three facets of Gear VR.

The Hardware

The hardware for Gear VR performs really well. Google Cardboard users will be surprised. Despite running on a smartphone display and processing power, John Carmack and his team at Oculus have done a fantastic job adapting Samsung's phones for low-latency head tracking. The delay between your head movements and the images on the screen responding is low enough to be almost instantaneous. The 60Hz refresh rate is lower than the 90Hz on desktop VR, but motion is smooth enough to avoid nausea. Workarounds like asynchronous timewarp further help smooth out the experience. In short, you can theoretically use Gear VR for a long period of time without getting sick.

Comfort in Gear VR also depends on the content, and less taxing experiences like watching Vimeo videos or Netflix movies feel completely natural and don't strain your eyes. Watching video, especially in rendered virtual theaters, feels like the killer app of Gear VR so far. It helps that stereoscopic 3D is a built-in byproduct of mobile VR, too.

Image quality on the Samsung phones' 2560x1440 AMOLED displays is really good. Pixel density is high, and because of the subpixel arrangement, I wasn't bothered by the grid-pattern screen door effect like we see on the desktop Oculus dev kits. The lenses aren't fresnel like they are on the consumer Rift, though, so the pixels don't blend together as well.

Because of the low latency, smooth motion, and high image quality, Gear VR is functionally superior than Google Cardboard or other phone-based mobile VR headsets. That gives it a much higher wow factor, and makes it comfortable for longform VR content. But a few things prevented me from staying in Gear VR for hours without interruptions.

First, Gear VR is a huge battery drain. VR games kills the Galaxy S6 battery pretty fast; 30 minutes of Anshar Wars took away 30% of the phone's battery. Video playback is less intensive; I could get through a two hour movie on a full phone charge, but without much juice to spare. That makes Gear VR not very appealing as an accessory to use on the go when you also rely on that same phone for email, Twitter, and web browsing. There's a microUSB port for charging the phone while using the headset, but you'll need a pretty long cord to not have it in the way, and it defeats the point of a truly mobile VR experience.

Second, the Gear VR gets really warm during use, and occasionally overheats the phone. This was a big problem with the Note 4, and heat management has improved a little bit with the GS6 version. But game sessions would still be cut short by temperature warnings or the Oculus app simply crashing. This is a problem for games moreso than video. There's active cooling in the Gear VR, but that's used for defogging the lenses, not bringing the temperature of the phone down in any meaningful way. Gear VR owners have even taken to aiming desk fans at their heads when using the headset, which actually makes a difference.

Speaking of fogging, the lenses on the Gear VR (at least the GS6 Innovator Edition) will still fog up and get blurry, despite the small fan. The lack of airflow between your eyes and the lenses is caused by the way you wear the Gear VR: it's strapped to your head like a pair of ski goggles, with the device pressed firmly against your face. It doesn't share the design of the Oculus Rift CV1, which has rigid side straps that allows it to fit on more like a baseball cap, with some breathing room below the headset. For the same reason, Gear VR also doesn't work with my glasses, and you can't adjust the focus on the lenses independently.

Finally, I encountered the issue of drift regularly. That's the problem of Gear VR's motion sensors not tracking my head movements perfectly, and little variations accumulating over time to rotate my entire body from its original position. When playing on a rotating stool, I would find myself rotated 90 degrees to the left after half an hour of playing an active game like Smash Hit. In the same vein, Gear VR can't distinguish your head movements from environmental shifts, so it's not something you can use comfortably in the backseat of a car or train without experiencing significant drift and the need to frequently recalibrate.

Gear VR's Content

At the time of this consumer launch three weeks ago, the quality and variety of content available for Gear VR was serviceable, but not too impressive. You can broadly categorize that content in terms of games, video, and VR "experiences." Aside from a few high-profile games like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Land's End, and EVE: Gunjack, most of the games were variants of the gaze-based shooters and puzzle games we saw during the Innovator Edition era. They're fun--Smash Hit is my favorite as a way to pass time--but aren't very deep. The VR "experiences" vary wildly in concept, from education-based environment simulators like Titans of Space to music creation. I didn't find them especially compelling or worth revisiting frequently.

The most palatable content for Gear VR is video. There's a distinction between traditional video feeds, like Vimeo Staff Picks, Netflix's library, and Twitch streams, and 360-degree video filmed with a wide gamut of camera rigs. The former is preferred. Watching your typical 16:9 rectangular boxed video in the Gear VR is strangely compelling, and the thing I liked doing longest while wearing the headset. It's way better than watching a movie by holding your phone up at arms length, even if the video resolution is lower in Gear VR because the display is split for stereoscopy. Gear VR is especially great for watching videos you've shot with your phones, too.

The 360-degree videos leave a lot to be desired. There's a small amount of 360 video content available already, whether on YouTube (viewed through the new Samsung Internet browser) or on dedicated apps like VRSE and Samsung's Milk VR channel. But because of the current difficulties in filming as well as editing 360 video, that content is typically short, looks worse than 16:9 video, and shows regular signs of stitching artifacts. Directors like Chris Milk are still figuring out the language of 360-degree video cinematography, so the format feels nascent and not ready for mass consumption. 360 video is fun to check out, and it's one of the things I use to demo Gear VR to friends and family, but I don't feel the need to rewatch the Jerry Seinfeld SNL clip on VRSE anytime soon.

What's promising for content is the pace of new releases since launch. In the past few weeks, there's been a steady stream of new games and VR apps to try out, like Flickr's new 360 photo viewer and the awesome game Drift. It's not quite the bottomless well of content of mobile apps stores for iOS and Android, but feels like there are enough developers trying new things to keep the flow of apps interesting. In that way, it feels a lot like the early days of Apple's App Store, where users could get a grasp of the entire library of apps, and where standout apps can make waves in the marketplace. We're still at Gear VR's Tap Tap Revolution, waiting for its Infinity Blade.

Mobile VR as a Platform

Using Gear VR for a few weeks, it feels more like a new game console than a whole new computing platform. From the floating menu design, game-heavy content, and closed ecosystem, it's more like the first generation XBox than Windows 95. It's something I find myself booting up for specific single-serving purposes; an alternative to launching my phone's YouTube app or a smartphone game rather than something I put on instead of using my desktop or even watching cable TV.

Part of that is due to Oculus being a closed platform. There's only so much to do right now. The main interface menu is used to purchase and launch apps, and the experiences all feel isolated from one another. If virtual reality is supposed to transport you to other worlds, the world of Gear VR feels a bit claustrophobic. There's not a lot of reason to keep the headset on, once you've played a few sessions of virtual Pac-Man in the Oculus Arcade--the loneliest arcade in the metaverse.

Social experiences can change that. But as of now, there aren't many multiplayer experiences on the platform. Oculus Social is still in beta; there's no friends list, no persistent chat system. Those are basic social features present in almost every other digital screen platform, and you can feel their omission here. This is something I hope Oculus addresses in its desktop Rift release.

Gear VR also isn't a device I could use just anywhere. With drift issues, mobile VR doesn't work for a daily commute. I took it on the plane for a trip to LA last week, and wasn't physically or psychologically comfortable using it during the flight. Putting it on actually made me more aware of my actual surroundings and more self aware. Everyone stares at you when you put on a goofy headset on the plane, and maybe that will get better over time. But mobile VR today means a device you can throw into your backpack and bring along to use in the privacy of a hotel room, or to share with family at Thanksgiving dinner--the places where your big screen TV and desktop PC aren't accessible. Mobile VR today means the ability to play some games where you can spin 360 degrees around a chair and not get tangled in a video cable or power cord. Those are compelling benefits, true, but a far cry from the potential of full mobility and mobile use.

With Oculus' flagship Rift headset still on the horizon, the point of Gear VR seems to be twofold: raising awareness or this new era of VR content, and driving Samsung phone sales. I think it'll do a little of both. Gear VR is a no brainer to buy if you already have one of this year's new Samsung phones. It's also good enough that I would recommend getting it along with one of those phones if you're already in the market for a new Android smartphone. It's not worth buying both the headset and a new phone if you're happy with your current phone situation, whether it's iOS or Android. Even three weeks after launch, the rate of new content for Gear VR makes me think it'll be a successful driver for Samsung phones over the next year, and it's easily the highest quality mobile VR experience right now. That said, mobile VR still has to prove itself as a platform that can pull me away from the computer screen, living room TV, smartphone, and tablet--and then keep me engaged. Until then, it's going to be a niche novelty.