<p class="dropcap">Virtual reality is a reality…in the sense that the hardware, software and content stars are finally aligning to make the platform approachable to more than just hardcore developers, gamers and hobbyists.
There’s always a set of early adopters who take on the heavy lifting, and Facebook’s Oculus has been doing just that. Since being acquired by Facebook, Oculus has been working on bringing VR to more people, and its unique partnership with Samsung has marched it towards that goal. On acquisition day, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg relayed Oculus’s mission and how it fits in nicely with Facebook’s:
Oculus’s mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences.
I wasn’t sold until I tried the first version of the Samsung Gear VR, which needed a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 to run. It was called an “Innovator” edition, and wasn’t fully aimed at consumers just yet. While I’m not a heavy gamer, as in I don’t play PlayStation or Xbox games for hours on end if they’re not Madden or NBA2K, I got just enough enjoyment out of it to see what Facebook and Oculus’s goal through Samsung was.
Today is the day that the true consumer model of the Gear VR, the third iteration of the product, hits shelves and doorsteps after going on pre-sale earlier this month.
The Gear VR costs $99 and requires Samsung’s Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or Note 5 to run. Not only is this a way for Oculus to get VR closer to the masses, it gets the masses more interested in their devices. If you’re in the market for an Android device and you’re intrigued by the Gear VR, now might be the time to take their phones seriously.
I’ve been testing out the new Samsung Gear VR for about a week and will relay my experiences, some good, some shrug-worthy, but overall a huge leap forward for virtual reality as a whole.
“People talk about VR and think it’s isolating,” Max Cohen, vice president of mobile at Oculus, told me about VR in social contexts. “But you can travel to places you don’t have the means to go to. Photos and videos are social. At Oculus we talk about experiencing anything, anywhere with anyone.”
So that’s where we started.
What does it take to make this thing go? Well, I’ll tell you what. The top-of-the-line Oculus virtual reality experience could run you thousands, including a PC that can run it and a hard-to-find developer kit, which is technically sold out, that will keep you trolling on Craigslist for weeks, like I did until I found mine.
Luckily, the Samsung Gear VR is in your grasp with its price point. Your choice of phone depends on who your carrier is, whether you’re adding it as a new line or buying the phone outright. A no-contract phone can run well over $700.
I’ve been testing out the Gear VR with the Samsung S6 Edge+, and while this isn’t a “phone review,” it’s important to note that it’s a powerful device — powerful enough to run consumer-ready VR experiences without a hitch. Mind you, if you’re planning on having this as your everyday phone, you might not like Samsung’s flavor of Android, it’s an interesting device. I’ve been mostly using it in the Gear VR, so I don’t have much other day-to-day phone use to report.
Those two things are the only requirements, but you’re definitely going to want to get yourself three things: a controller, a pair of headphones and a bag to carry your gear. For testing purposes, I was provided with the Stratus XL controller by Steelseries ($59.99) and the Samsung Level On wireless headphones ($229). The controller is great, and a fair price I think. It works via Bluetooth and requires no real setup. The headphones, by way of Samsung, aren’t my cup of tea. Serviceable? Yes. But you probably have some good headphones already. I just suggest that you use the over the ear variety for full immersive effect. If you try to use the Gear VR going off of the phone’s sound alone, you’re only getting half of the experience.
The Gear VR itself is light…0.62 pounds to be exact. The previous two “Innovator” editions of the Gear VR were a pound, but felt even heavier. Mind you, most of the weight you’re going to feel is from the phone, but even then it’s not a big deal. You’re provided with two straps to secure it to your lovely head, and they really keep the thing in place.
I have glasses, so the extra spongy foam gives me the room and support I need to wear this thing for more than 45 minutes at a time, something I struggled with at times with the previous edition.
“Oculus has always been dedicated to a comfortable VR experience, if it’s not comfortable we don’t want to give it to people,” Cohen told me.
The internal sensors include a gyrometer and accelerometer that let your head become the “controller” in a sense. As you look around inside the new worlds you explore, it’s like you’re…there. These sensors do the trick on that.
And it is a trick, as the Φ38, FOV 96º, x6.7 optical lenses is tricking your brain into thinking you’re seeing something in immersive 360-degree 3D experiences. Keeping the lenses clean is key, in addition to the phone’s glass, because the phone is being interpreted by the lenses on the Gear VR. Get some dust in there and you’ll notice it and it’ll annoy the hell out of you.
The phone connects with microUSB. It might take you a few tries to snap your phone in correctly, since the Gear VR can handle four different phones. There’s some tab sliding and snapping that’ll happen, but once it’s fastened in, you know it. If you’re not seeing the right imagery when you slap it on, then it’s probably because the phone isn’t snapped in right. Easy enough to fix.
Externally, the trackpad has gotten an upgrade. It used to be a flat white surface with no tactile feel whatsoever. You’d tap into apps by accident and it frustrated the hell out of me. This new trackpad feels much better, because after all…you can’t see it when you have the Gear VR on your head. Not all experiences need a controller, but everything requires the trackpad. Huge upgrade here.
Last, but not least, the thing is white. Or “Frost” according to Samsung. For a portable product that is going to take some getting used to for you, and for those around you, I would have expected a few other options. I would totally rock an orange headset.
How did Oculus and Samsung team up in the first place? CES a few years back, Oculus’ Cohen told me.
“Basically Samsung knew that they had these amazing screens with great colors that could do low persistence,” Cohen said. “We were committed to the Rift and John Carmack said he loves working within constraints. He believed that mobile could be done a lot sooner than others could.”
Thus the match made in VR heaven.
As I’ve said a few times, the content that’s available for the consumer version of Gear VR is more important than the hardware. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Samsung and Oculus have done a fabulous job shrinking down something that used to sit on hardcore PCs into something you can run from room to room with to play with, but for someone with no experience to reference, what you can do is what makes this thing magical.
There are games galore on the Oculus store. Shoot ’em up seems to be the genre du jour, but I expect that to change over time as more people get used to the idea of immersive experiences. Some of the games are what I call “light play” though, such as Oculus’ Arcade beta that lets you step into an arcade full of standup machines, including Sonic The Hedgehog and Pac-Man.
Here are just a few of the titles that have gotten me sucked into their worlds:
VR Karts is by far my favorite game, both personally, and when a friend wants to try out the Gear VR. It’s like Mario Kart, but of course you’re in the driver’s seat. Turn your head to the left, you’re looking left. Right? Same. Up? Yup. Look behind you as you’re driving and you might catch yourself getting a bit dizzy as you see a car sneak up on you. It’s almost like being in a real go-kart. You’ll definitely need the controller for this one. It’d be cool if you could control a little more with your head, but there is a mode where you can target a driver and shoot something out at them which requires you to use your head to line things up. Super fun, and I’ve logged at least 10 hours playing it so far.
Bandit Six: Salvo from Climax Studios feels like the flagship gaming experience if you’re super into shooting stuff. You use your head as a controller to aim guns and mortars fired at tanks and ships. It can become disorienting, especially when switching guns, but it’s pretty damn fun. Yes, people around you will wonder what the hell you’re looking at because your head is swiveling around in concert with a gun turret. When will the first VR-related injury happen for me? Soon I think. Whiplash. It needs a name. VRlash? This is “light play” but man it’s addictive and you can just keep going from level to level and things start flying at you from all over the place.
Land’s End really takes advantage of the true 360-degree nature of virtual reality. I highly suggest finding yourself a swivel chair that’s out of the way of people walking by you. The couch won’t do this one justice, and you might fall over if you’re standing up, especially since you’re climbing up a mountain unlocking paths along the way. You have to weave around the side of said mountain and, yes, that requires you to look in every way imaginable….up, down, left, right and everything in between. It’s part puzzle, part exploration and entirely fun. You get lost in this one.
Omega Agent is a great way to get yourself accustomed to being in a 360-degree VR environment. It’s probably the second game I suggest playing after driving around in VR Karts. You’re wearing a jetpack and there’s a series of missions that test how nimble you are with pointing your head and using the controller together. It takes time to get used to playing, but it’s worth it. Yes, it’s a game where you can shoot stuff with a shotgun, but it’s the best experience I’ve had that made a “flight” experience feel normal. I’ve jumped out of a plane so it felt very much like drifting around once your parachute deploys.
A couple of other titles to look out for are Gunjack, Esper 2, Finding Monsters, Anshar Wars 2 and Into the Dead. Again, depending on your tastes and the type of VR you can handle, there’s a bit of something for everyone.
Not into games? No problem. This is where I think Samsung and Oculus can reach the masses. There are a whole host of experiences that have no gaming elements in them, but are fun to play around with. Want to watch videos? Oculus Video has 9,000 titles from Vimeo and Twitch and 70 feature-length films from 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate. There’s also a Netflix app that gives you access to their entire catalogue.
No matter where you are, you’ll be enjoying a movie from your “couch,” as the app simulates the experience of sitting on a big red couch and watching a big TV. This could be cool while you’re sitting at the airport during a layover. It’ll block everything out that’s around you. Samsung’s Milk VR app has a few experiences worth checking out, including the scuba-diving one. All you have to do is fire it up and look around you as the camera swims you about.
“When we think about how we’ve talked about VR for the past two or three years, a lot of people hadn’t heard of it or tried it,” Nick DiCarlo, vice president and general manager of immersive products and virtual reality at Samsung, told me. “We’ve gone to Best Buy’s and events to get people going. We’re starting the dialogue. There’s something in VR for a lot of different people.”
There are also mini-experiences that sometimes serve as marketing campaigns. One such experience is for Jurassic World, and while I don’t want to ruin it for you, a big-ass dinosaur becomes interested in “you” and it’s your choice whether you want to be freaked out or not. You can also catch President Bill Clinton discussing the situation in East Africa. All immersive, all like you’re actually there.
There’s a bunch of stuff that’s free. Most games are under $8. That sure beats a $60 PlayStation game, albeit a completely different experience. You will definitely get your bang for your buck with the content that’s available for you from day one.
Oculus as a platform is what attracted Facebook for sure. On that topic, and getting developers to create for the platform, Cohen told me:
We have tried to develop a healthy ecosystem. We never compete with our developers. We would never forbid an app from the store that competes. From a first party perspective, we play with a lot of things and see what has legs.
Cohen also told me about a section of the Oculus Store, called Concepts, that has games from developers who haven’t gone through the Oculus paces yet. Think of it as a sandbox for all types of things. That launched today.
Being in virtual reality could easily eat up most of your day. Especially when you’re just getting started. As the days and weeks go on, though, you find yourself dipping your toe in now and then when you have some time. The idea that it’s not a social experience is a bit of a misnomer as I find it fun to drop the goggles on a friend and tell them to just soak the world around them in.
With Facebook behind Oculus, you can bet that social experiences will get better and better. Imagine rolling through your News Feed and seeing some far off land…like your mom’s house in New Jersey. In 360-degree VR. Kinda rad. Right now, we have to settle for the Alpha (very Alpha) version of Oculus Social. There’s not much to it yet, but things are moving along quickly with development, I’m told.
As far as what you can tolerate, take it easy. If you’re made dizzy easily, just try something light out like a Netflix movie. Get used to blocking out everything that’s around you for a little while. There’s nobody judging you or anyone scoring you on how “VR cool” you are.
So is this for you? Yes, you might look like a big ol’ nerd when you put the headset on. Yes, people may judge you. But until you’ve experienced some type of immersive sensation for yourself, it’s hard to make a decision.
I highly suggest picking up a Google Cardboard, which isn’t “real VR” but will give you a sense of what it’s like to step into a world that’s all around you. Try a video, try looking at photos. If you’re into it, then the Gear VR is the obvious next step up. Yes, the fact that you need to buy a Samsung phone sounds like a pain. But it beats an expensive PC. When you think about Nintendo Wii, PlayStation and Xbox, you’re shelling out hundreds of bucks for consoles, accessories and games.
Speaking of the Wii, I think the Samsung Gear VR is pretty comparable to the experience in that the Wii got people playing games who didn’t normally play them. My Mom used to play a ton of Wii Tennis. She never ever thought of herself as a gamer. If you want to have fun with your friends and family, you’re going to experience the same excitement over virtual reality with the Gear VR.
The virtual reality experience with Gear VR is not without its drawbacks, though. Depending on the charge on your phone, games can sometimes feel choppy. You may have to reorient the headset a bunch, because you end up facing a completely different direction when you started and the thing gets confused.
It’s all about learning, though. And you don’t have to be afraid of putting it through its paces, because it ain’t gonna break easily. If it does, you’re not replacing thousands of dollars in equipment.
While Facebook and Oculus say their consumer product, the Oculus Rift, should hit stores by early 2016, it’s not going to be a mobile experience like this. You can literally unpack this thing, put it on your head and be checking something out within minutes. There’s no prep and no fuss.
Regardless, Facebook and Oculus are in it for the long haul, and Cohen told me about how the relationship between the two has been since the acquisition:
Facebook helps in every way. They’re hands off. We control the vision, but Facebook has been there with resources on the engineering side and the knowhow side and the financial side.
It’s something Facebook really believes in. It’s a passion for Facebook.
The “future” of virtual reality and content consumption is here, today, and the Gear VR is the window into “what’s to come.”