For the past year, everyone online has been fascinated by VR. Virtual Reality, like the kind that we see in Anime and movies. Nobody I know has ever used a VR device, and that's mainly due to the fact that there aren't any real commercially viable options out there for regular people. Last year I bought the Oculus DK2 just to come to the realization that my 4-year-old laptop was not a gaming rig, and so it pretty much just looked like a PS2 game and 90% of the time crashed my computer. VR is tough apparently. People swear by this though. They assure you that it's pretty much like being there, wherever there may be at the time. Lucky for me, I just picked up a Galaxy S6 Edge to replace my aging LG G2 from a time long gone. And luckily again, Samsung has jumped on board the VR train and has come out with their own headset.
At $99, it's definitely one of the cheapest VR options around. Especially taking into account that Facebook just announced a hefty 600$ price tag on the retail version of the Rift. And if you've seen the recommended computer specs for the Oculus, then you'll probably rule it out of your wishlist. So I've been using the Gear VR for about a week now, testing out as many apps as I can, and just, in general, trying to better get a feel for it and to pin point where it comes in weak.
The Gear VR is a powerless, brainless (kind-of), VR headset that uses a host Samsung phone as it's processor and battery. And if you're comparing it to any of the Cardboard counterparts, then I'll ask that you hold for a second. The Gear VR is also a host to many different sensors that create a more immersive experience. It has an accelerometer, gyroscope and proximity sensor, so that your host phone doesn't have to do all the work. And this is why the Gear VR is miles ahead of the Cardboard. While the Cardboard versions are a good example of what VR can do, the Gear VR is an example of how attainable it is for everyday people.
I personally really like the way the VR looks. It isn't too big and it isn't a fingerprint magnet. It's lightweight, and most importantly, it's pretty much wireless. I say pretty much because if you wanted to you could attach a micro usb connector to the unit if your phone is low on power.
Because the Gear VR supports various phone sizes, the phone connector plug can slide in two different positions, A and B respectively. And the opposite side has a locking mechanism as well. My phone definitely felt very sturdy inside the Gear VR, and not in a "my phone is crushed" kind of way. If you have a phone case however, you may have some trouble locking your large phone in. But that's only if you find yourself with a hefty sized case.
Overall the unit is very low in weight and you can't tell at all that you're wearing it. Samsung made it a point to reduce the overall weight when it released the consumer version by around 19%.
The touchpad controls are on the right side of the unit, and they consist of a 4 way control pad, a center action button and a back button, to return back to a previous screen. Holding the back button will take you to the main Gear VR menu screen, which is pretty helpful in many of the apps. The control pad doesn't consist of physical buttons, but more touch sensitive buttons. So moving forward example would equate to sliding across the d-pad in a forward motion. The center "button" is also not a real button, but just a touch sensitive area. Just tapping lightly will trigger it. Overall it's very easy to get used to the controls on the Gear VR. After about 10 minutes I had no issues navigating my way around.
At the very top of the unit is the focus wheel, which you can use to adjust the focus of the lenses. So far I haven't really had a need to adjust this as it was just fine where it was when I first opened the unit.
The padding on the edges of the unit is very comfortable and you definitely can't really like you're wearing anything after a while. The Gear VR does sit low on the nose though, and as such definitely might need to be adjusted manually in order to get the best possible picture.
So I've used the Google Cardboard variants in the past in an attempt to understand what all the fuss was about, and there were a few titles that were for lack of better terms, awesome. Because the Gear VR is a more powerful unit, I was excited to try it out. To see what this "immersion" was all about. I wanted to be whisked away to another land full of power ups and bizarre creatures. And what can I say. It's just plain cool. Even in a stationary application where you can just look around you in a 360 degree field of view, you're taken away for just a second. Despite it's higher power than paper units, it's still just 99$ and as such it can only do so much. You're not getting 1080p in each eye for sure. And you also get this screen door effect over your entire field of vision. After a few minutes, you definitely forget about this screen door, but it's always there, and as such every now and then you'll tend to focus on it. There's almost no noticeable latency on this unit. You can quick spin your head around and it keeps up without a problem.
So it's immersive to a certain extent, but this also has much to do with the applications that you're running. There are plenty of awesome apps that look amazing on the Gear VR, but there's also plenty more than do little more than show you various photos at different angles.
The App Stores
Here was my only gripe with the Gear VR, and it lies in the applications. By default, you get a few standard apps with your Gear VR free of charge. About 5 really. Most of which are really one time use apps. If you pretty much want any other app, you're going to have to pay for them.
And I totally get it, people spend months and years making their apps, and they should totally get paid for it. But because of that, in the end I was left with about 8 applications that I could download to try out. And while those applications were decent, I'm sure they don't compare to the ones that come at a cost. One very exciting title for example was Land's End. Which looks something like this:
Amazing. But it does come with a $9.99 price tag, which I gladly played, and all I can say is wow. That's definitely a new way to play video games. I'm hesitant however to spend another $9.99 for the next app, particular since these games aren't exactly dozens of hours long. So hopefully with the adoption of more VR units, so too will the app market grow along with it.
Should You Buy It?
That really depends on how involved you are with VR currently. If you're cool with shelling out the bucks to buy VR applications and games, then more power to you. But if you're just looking to try out the experience, then I would recommend using a Cardboard variant instead. Those come with a 10-15$ price tag usually, and while not as powerful as the Gear VR, they are still pretty impressive. If you have a recent Samsung Galaxy phone however, and want to take a stab at VR before the Rift comes out, then this is definitely your go to device.
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Walter G. is a software engineer, startup co-founder, former CTO of several tech companies and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He has been blogging for the past 5 years and is an avid BMX rider, bio-hacker
and performance enthusiast.