VR, or virtual reality, has a long and winding history. From the distant dream of Sega's VR, unveiled back in 1993, to the modern day it's-almost-here reality of Oculus Rift, it's Korean giant Samsung that's now here to, well, try and sell some more phones with its product, the Samsung Gear VR.
Virtual reality is still something of a dreamers' concept; the idea of being transported from this world into a virtual other has been topic of sci-fi and social science for many years. But unlike the Holodeck in Star Trek, the only way to do that in the here and now is to strap a helmet to your face (something Microsoft thinks is a good idea with Hololens). Or, in the case of the Gear VR, effectively strap a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone to your face, via a helmet accessory.
Which sees us arrive from our excitable childhood dreams of actually being Sonic The Hedgehog (he's dead to us now anyway, courtesy of Sega's poor decisions), to a somewhat more pessimistic view of what Samsung's form of VR is all about. It might have no wires, offering some degree of freedom, but with a lack of content, and the unknown state of future compatibility, is the Gear VR nothing more than a fad?
First thing's first: to use the Gear VR you'll need to have a Note 4 handy. Which, at around £600, and often touted as a device with a business clientele focus, feels somewhat mismatched to a VR system. We know why it's been paired, of course, it's down to its 1440 x 2560 resolution, which is as pixel-packed as 5.7-inch panels come.
Not that you'll get the same crystal clear detail when strapping the Gear VR to your face, as the built-in lenses significantly magnify the area of view. As a full 360-degree world needs to be delivered – and all from that 5.7-inch panel, magnified to life-size proportions – the equivalent resolution you'll see at any one time (which we don't have an exact figure for) makes for a far more pixilated experience. Indeed, you can see distinct pixels.
However, when nothing is on display, it's really dark; black-out dark. We could do with some bedroom curtains as capable at cutting out the light as the Gear VR. Such darkness makes the Note 4's colour-rich AMOLED panel look rather impressive, resolution aside.
You could try a different smartphone, but it will fail; without the interaction between phone and helmet – the Note 4 docks with via its micro USB and setup is automatically instigated – you'll get nothing.
Hold onto your hat... and stomach
If you've used Oculus Rift then you'll have a rough idea how the Gear VR feels. It's an undoubtedly impressive, immersive, hold-onto-your-hat experience, giving you the freedom to look all around a responsive, low latency 360-degree virtual world – whatever that happens to be.
The earlier point about resolution limitation isn't an unusual case – no VR system has managed to up the stakes, or source the processing power, to make for a truly high-res experience just yet - as Oculus Rift is much the same.
The Gear VR has padding in all the right places and the adjustable straps mean you can make it as comfortable or, conversely, as uncomfortable as you choose. Some people will get on fine with the experience, while others will feel claustrophobic and nauseated – just like with Oculus Rift (and perhaps no surprise as the Gear VR is powered by Oculus VR) – in a hold-onto-your-stomach kind of way.
If you happen to be a glasses wearer then the built-in focus adjustment is present to correct for near- or far-sightedness, but only to a given degree. Although there aren't distinct specifications, anything greater than +/-3 and we think you'll be out of luck. For our particular needs – different eyes doing slightly different things – it made for an even more stomach-churning experience.
So we would opt to keep the glasses on, but the device isn't designed to accommodate them (there's a risk of scratching the interior lenses). Living dangerously, as we do, we tried it once, and found the presence of an extra layer of lenses exacerbated the blurring and aberrations present towards the outer edge of the image (but you don't have to wear glasses for this to be an issue). At times, it was a bit like being stuck in a Hunter S Thompson nightmare, all while being far too sober.
But it's all relative to personal experience and preference; some people will feel absolutely fine and dandy with the Gear VR on. For us, we'd rather have a 1080p telly for gaming and never be subjected to VR video – including the "as if you're there" Cirque du Soleil (an included experience, more on software later) – because, well, it's just not necessary.
Ease of operation
Using the Gear VR is easy to operate, despite not being able to see the controls while encased in the hardware. Comprised of a swipe-controlled touchpad, back button and volume up/down controls all to the right hand side of the device, it's just a case of getting used to where they are positioned.
The first time you fire-up the system there's a walkthrough, complete with necessary "look here to confirm" moments, which serves well to educate. It's easy to swipe the panel to the side of the unit, even if it doesn't feel immediately natural to locate it at this point in time.
Upon each load – and a proximity sensor knows when the Gear VR is positioned to the face – you'll be presented with a home screen, comprising Store (Oculus and Samsung) and Library options. Amid the latest downloads, there are also shortcuts to Oculus Cinema and Oculus 360 Videos/Photos. It's all easy to grasp what's what.
As stated on the Samsung website, there's no controller included and "some high-quality gaming apps may require the use of an Android game controller", which is something not to overlook. If you want to play games and even use some of the Oculus software for experiences then you'll need a decent controller paired via Bluetooth with the Note 4.
A key driver for any virtual reality setup is what's available to play, see and do. As the Samsung system utilises adapted Oculus VR on an Android operating system, that paints a potentially strong picture for the future, as lots of people have access to Android devices.
Problem is, for now, the Gear VR is tied to the Note 4. So when that's replaced by a device of any different scale in the near future, it could becomes redundant. Which doesn't seem sustainable.
All we can judge a system on is what it has available at the time of availability. And right now the Gear VR has just a handful of games and experiences on offer, many of which are free to download, but no title or experience that we'd describe as a must have to justify its asking price. Ok, so £150 isn't a crazy amount of money, but the Note 4 tie-in is rather specific.
Game-wise we've been blasting spaceships in Anshar Wars (which claims no gamepad is needed, but you'll be spinning around on the spot if you don't have one), watching Cirque du Soleil (reluctantly, as you spend half the time watching what's going on around you, rather than the main event; it feels too alien) via Oculus Video, and there is the promise of more to come.
As we type these words there's a lot of talk surrounding VR movie creation at the Sundance Film Festival. Add that Samsung Milk VR will provide a steady stream of monthly VR content and Oculus Cinema will do much the same, and there will be more to see in the future. Whether that's enough to justify purchase begs to be seen.
Our question is less about the volume and more about the quality: do we really want to be watching immersive, limited resolution experiences? It feels like the next wave of 3D: a nice idea, but something that's never been pulled off with true success, not without being a hindrance to some degree.
The first time we slipped the Gear VR on and literally looked around a whole virtual galaxy, head turning to take in what was to the side and behind, a part of us was impressed with the sheer spectacle. It's quite amazing.
But minus our actual spectacles, the only truly lasting impression was that of nausea. It's a risk of any VR setup – feeling like you've travelled a winding road at speed while reading an extra-thick hardback book – meaning the Gear VR won't suit all.
The tie-in with the Note 4 as the only compatible smartphone, the potential cost, limited software library, and an image that can blur and to the edges and lack fidelity, also mars the overall experience.
Yes, the Gear VR isn't like the wires an' all plugged-in experience of Oculus Rift, it's somewhat freer thanks to the smartphone integration. But it's also less powerful, and presumably life-limited.
The Samsung Gear VR is no Star Trek Holodeck and, ultimately, feels like a passing fad. A really fun fad that some will love – and that our childhood inner self so wanted to – but, hand on heart, we can't see it being talked about in this format come the end of the year.
£150 (without Note 4 smartphone)