Samsung has a new and improved Gear VR virtual reality headset. Ed Baig takes a closer look.
NEW YORK—Bono was sitting directly in front of me belting out Song For Someone in a spacious but barren arena. To his left, Edge was on guitar. I was close enough to the two men to briefly toy with grabbing Bono’s microphone and joining him in a duet.
Not that I actually could have.
The experience was made possible by the new $99.99 Samsung Gear VR headgear that was strapped to my head, complemented by the Samsung headphones that supplied the requisite soundtrack, and a Samsung Galaxy Note5 phablet,where content is streamed or downloaded.
Co-developed by Facebook-owned Oculus, Samsung’s Gear VR becomes a reality on Friday for consumers bent on buying a unit. You can initially get it from Samsung.com, Amazon.com and BestBuy.com. It will also be coming to T-Mobile and AT&T.
Those who do get it will have a good time. I’ve been testing Gear VR for a few days and you can’t help but be blown away by its possibilities.
But you’ll grapple with some drawbacks and hurdles, including discomfort over long stretches and a big drain on phone battery life. Plus, iPhone loyalists will need to buy a Samsung phone or phablet to make it work.
The grand vision behind this technological hocus-pocus—which seems on the cusp of taking off this holiday season and beyond—is that you can be someplace or be part of something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
So I swam with reef sharks and sea snakes in a demo app called Ocean Rift. I flew with the Blue Angels in a 360-degree video produced by USA TODAY. And I stood on the sideline at midfield and watched a soccer match between Manchester United and Barcelona that was captured by NextVR.
What’s more, I explored a stunning and mysterious Neolithic landscape in a game from Ustwo Games called Land’s End.
Maybe the best time I had was sitting near Michael Douglas, Larry David, and other star-studded celebs in the Saturday Night Live audience for the show’s 40th anniversary.
That wasn’t the only virtual reality theater that I experienced. Signed into my own Netflix account—the entire Netflix catalog is available in Gear VR—I watched Lawrence of Arabia on a big virtual screen as I sat inside a grand virtual cinema. When the film started playing, the lights in this faux movie house dimmed, just like they do in a real theater. The only thing missing was the scent of popcorn.
You also get to change the kind of theater you’re watching in on Gear VR, perhaps to watching from the moon or from the perspective of an ant.
Samsung and Oculus are casting a wider net with this new product . For starters, this latest model is 19% lighter, and $100 cheaper than a predecessor model. (The much pricier Oculus Riff is due out next year.)
Wearing the device
And there’s a lot more virtual reality content, which you can get at via a store that is accessible inside the Gear VR environment. Among the stuff you can watch: 360 videos from VRSE or Samsung’s Milk VR service, more than 9000 Vimeo and Twitch videos, 70 feature-length films from 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate, and a growing collection of games.
As you consider apps to fetch free or purchase, you get a reading on how comfortable it is to play, how it affects the battery of your phone, and how you get to control the app (head tracking, game controller).
You’ll still need a compatible Samsung phone to work with Gear VR, of which there are only four premium models: the Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 edge+, Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge. (Galaxy Note 4 does not work on this one.) For sound, you can plug in any standard headphone to the phone or better yet rely on wireless Bluetooth headphones if you have a pair. A third party game controller is also optional.
Samsung says the compatible phones, which snap into a compartment in the bottom of Gear VR, boast the high tech displays, color, clarity and performance required to drive the VR experience.
This is kind of a double-edged sword for Samsung. If you get hooked on VR then you may be more compelled to buy one of the aforementioned Samsung handsets. But if you’re wedded to a rival phone, Gear VR becomes a non-starter.
There are other issues. Gear VR seems to sap the phone battery fairly quickly.
As crazy cool as many of the virtual reality experiences are, Gear VR felt heavy against the bridge of my nose, making the headset uncomfortable to wear for long stretches.
Some of you may have a tough time getting a proper fit, have difficulty with eyeglasses or experience nausea. Fortunately, I didn’t.
What I did struggle with at times was the focus—there’s a focus wheel for that purpose.
Basic navigation, through a side panel touchpad and a single back button takes a little getting used to too, though this side panel has been improved from the last version. Sometimes you move through menus and app choices by scrolling with your fingers, sometimes by turning your head.
I also encountered one snag when a notification popped up that telling me that Gear VR needed to cool down to “maintain optimum performance.”
Meantime, Gear VR can be somewhat isolating; there’s a lot of waiting around when a friend or family member is immersed in Gear VR. While this is happening, you can’t help but notice how goofy they may look, just as you probably look to them.
Since Facebook owns Oculus, it’s no surprise that we’re already seeing efforts to make virtual reality more social. Oculus has announced an early version of an experience I got to try on Gear VR called Oculus Social Alpha, which lets you watch videos in the company of perfect strangers, each of you represented by an avatar.
For now, that’s as close to real as it gets.
The bottom line
Samsung Gear VR
Pro. Cool experiences put you in places you wouldn’t otherwise be. Reasonably priced. Growing library of VR content.
Con. Can be uncomfortable to wear. Only works with one of four Samsung phones.
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