Virtual reality has bubbled below the surface of the general public's consciousness for some time, only cropping up when a geeky friend talks breathlessly about its potential, or when journalists try out yet another expensive prototype. But all that is about to change as Samsung begins marketing its latest headset, the Gear VR, alongside the new Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge smartphones.
We reviewed the original Gear VR 'innovator edition' a year ago, but much has changed since those early days. For a start, the price has fallen from £170 then to £80 for the new Gear VR, and many Samsung fans will have just got theirs for free as part of a giveaway to everyone who pre-ordered the new S7 or S7 Edge.
VR is now in more hands and at a lower price than ever before. But with the technology improving all the time and new headsets out later this year, is this the time to jump on the VR bandwagon? We put the latest Gear VR through its paces to find out.
Samsung Gear VR: Design
Will we look back on headsets like the Gear VR in 20 years' time and laugh at their size, just as we do now at old mobile phones? My colleague asks an interesting question, but for now we're stuck with looking like cyborgs. Having said that, the new Gear VR is 40% smaller than the last model and there have been a few useful updates.
The first and most obvious is how the trackpad has been given the layout of a D-pad to help make swiping up, down, left and right easier. Tapping the middle acts as select, while the back and volume buttons are the same as before. Also unchanged is the Gear VR's lack of a battery, as the entire thing is powered by your smartphone, which connects onto the front through its microUSB port.
Despite its size, the Gear VR is comfortable to wear thanks to padding around the front and two adjustable straps. I would have liked the front to wrap more tightly around my face, however, as light would leak in and produce two reflections in my field of view.
Samsung Gear VR: Setup and controls
One of the most challenging aspects of VR is trying to instruct people how to use it. The user interface is unfamiliar, the controls are unsighted and the instructor can't see what the user can. Thankfully the Gear VR's setup process and interface is simple and there are some useful tutorials which talk you through the controls and how to adjust the focus of the lenses before you start.
Most of the interface is navigated by moving your head to look at what you want, then tapping the trackpad to select it. Pressing the back button takes you back a page (obviously) and a prolonged press brings up a menu for adjusting the brightness, returning to the home page, and activating the 'pass through' camera, where you can see what's in front of you by using the phone's rear camera.
No Samsung phone comes with VR software installed, but as soon as you connect it to the Gear VR you are asked to download a suite of applications to the phone, including the Oculus store which is where all manner of VR games, apps, videos and other experiences can be downloaded from. Once installed, you can browse the Oculus store on the phone itself, rather than strapping on the Gear VR, and start downloading apps. Now it's time to play...
Samsung Gear VR: Software, apps and games
Navigating around the Gear VR's user interface is simple. The interface is set out in a grid and all you have to do is look at what you want (there's a small dot in the middle of your field of view) then tap the touchpad to make a selection. It can be overwhelming at first and difficult to know what to do first, so a good place to start is probably the video selection.
GoPro have a great catalogue of 360-degree action videos, mostly taken from helmet cams and selfie sticks. NextVR is another good video app which includes live 180-degree broadcasts from a wide range of events, from golf and motorsport to the US presidential debates. VRSE is another video app which includes high-quality documentaries and storytelling from Vice and others.
Samsung launched the Galaxy S7 duo on the back of a performance by Years & Years. The performance is available for free on the Oculus store and neatly shows how VR can turn something we're all familiar with - a band performing on stage - into an entirely new experience. Multiple cameras are used to give different viewpoints, including one which flies above the performance from one side of the room to the other. Another snippet of VR shows what Cirque du Soleil is like when you're on stage with the performers.
For US readers, Samsung's Milk VR store offers up loads more VR content, including 360-degree roller coaster rides and in-car footage from a Nascar race. Unfortunately, Milk VR isn't yet available in the UK.
Although fun, this has all been fairly passive so far. So let's head into the gaming section and see what's what. VR Karts makes great use of Samsung's Bluetooth gamepad, putting you in the driving seat of a game similar to Mario Kart, complete with speed boosts and weapons.
Other than VR Karts, we found very few games actually require the gamepad. Perhaps this is a good thing, given that Samsung no longer sells it, but relying on the Gear VR as your only input device can feel limiting. Tapping and swiping the touchpad is fine for menus but far from ideal as a game controller.
Instead, many games can be controlled and navigated solely by looking around and focusing on certain targets to progress or make decisions. The much more expensive Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will appeal to gaming enthusiasts when they launch later this year, leaving the Gear VR to win the hearts of casual and mobile gamers who put value and fun ahead of graphical performance.
While the £80 Gear VR offers great value compared to the £689 HTC Vive, most games for the Samsung headset are relatively expensive. Many cost £7.99, so it doesn't take long at all before you have spent a quarter or even half of the Gear VR's price again on apps. Some are also quite short and offer less appeal to play again than similarly-priced (or cheaper) games on iOS and Android. It is early days though and this will likely change.
If ever you needed an excuse to get into VR, then this is it. Owners of all recent flagship Samsungs can now get their hands on good VR experiences for £80. It isn't perfect, because the resolution is still quite low, resulting in slightly grainy video which at times is difficult to focus on.
That said, the rest of the experience is excellent. The Gear VR is easy to set up and use, comfortable, and already offers a wide range of content for the casual gamer and VR enthusiast. VR is currently at the stage mobile phones were at when they resembled house bricks. The technology will improve greatly, it will get much smaller and it will become cheaper over the coming years.
As technology reporters, we sometimes forget how fortunate we are to try all of the latest gadgets from day one. Giving the Gear VR to a friend and watching their reaction as they experience VR for the first time is a truly special moment. It has a much greater effect than 3D ever did, it is much more exciting than Google Glass, and it is more recognisably a game changer than even the first iPod, iPhone and iPad were.
- Easy to use
- Resolution could be better
- Some light leaks in
- Games are relatively expensive