Review Price £185.00
The Gear VR Innovation Edition, to give it its full name, has actually been built in partnership with Oculus. Unlike the Oculus Rift, however, Samsung’s VR headset doesn’t have much of the tech built in – it requires a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 to be slotted into it to provide the screen and brains, making this essentially a Note 4 accessory.
That means that while the headset seems reasonably priced at under £200, you need a £600 (SIM-free) handset to power it, and also Samsung's wireless GamePad (£50-60) to tap into its full potential. Doesn’t seem so reasonable now, does it?
It feels far from the finished article, but the Gear VR does give you a glimpse at the potential of virtual reality. We took it out on the street to let a few people have a VR taster, and you can see their amazement in this Samsung Gear VR reactions video:
If you’ve seen the Oculus Rift, then you’ll have some idea of what to expect from the Gear VR. It straps around the back of your head, with the main unit over your eyes, and it’s a bit bigger than a pair of over-ear headphones. It seems there’s still a way to go before virtual-reality headsets are anything but clunky.
Up front there’s a transparent plastic visor that can be removed to place the Galaxy Note 4 in front of the lenses. Behind the visor lies a Micro USB dock to clip the phone in, while it’s clamped from the other end. It will stay in place as long as you check both ends are clipped around the phone.
The Gear VR is predominantly plastic, with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone-esque white finish that prevents it from feeling entirely like a prototype. Best of all there are absolutely no wires to get in the way, because all of the power comes from the Note 4 docked inside it. If you want to cart it around, there's a small carry case supplied – and we'd suggest using it, as we’re not convinced throwing this thing in your bag is the best idea.
When you slip the headset on, it sits steady and secure. Samsung has used a pair of stretchy adjustable straps to keep the headset fastened to the head and not clamping in an uncomfortable way. A soft eye rest and padding on the inside of the headband also help to provide a snug fit.
When you look through the headset you’ll be able to spy that all-important pair of optical lenses. Note 4 aside, this is crucial to how Gear VR works. The Note 4 sends out two images side-by-side, one for each eye, and the lenses sit in front of it to bend and distort the image to create the immersive, stereoscopic 3D effect.
Those lenses are also capable of delivering a nice, wide 96-degree field of view in front of you. The latest Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype manages closer to 110 degrees, but the Gear VR is still set up to create a truly immersive experience. With the number of sensors like the accelerometer and gyroscope in tow, the headset is able to keep up when you move your head and replicate the feel of moving around the 360-degree content.
On the exterior of the headset there's a handful of physical controls to prevent you from having to fiddle with the phone. On the right side is the back button to jump back within the Gear VR interface plus a sizeable gesture-sensitive touchpad just below. Here you can swipe and tap, but it does take some time to locate this touchpad when you've got the headset on. Additionally, there's a volume control rocker nearer the front of the headset and a focal adjustment dial above the lenses. This allows you to move the Galaxy Note 4 closer or nearer to the lenses, making it more accommodating for nearsighted or farsighted users.
Getting the Gear VR up and running is pretty straightforward, although you will need to put aside 20-30 minutes for downloading and installing content.
The first thing to do check is that the microSD card supplied is in place behind the Note 4's removable back. This houses some of the Gear VR content, such as 360-degree videos and photos, and can also hold your own formatted Gear VR-friendly content.
When clipping the Note 4 in the Gear VR for the first time, a voice prompt will tell you to take the phone out and initiate the installation process. You’ll no doubt be in a rush to get through the EULA agreement part of the process, but we'd suggest having a good read through the health-and-safety precautions.
That way you'll find out that Samsung suggests people under the age of 13 shouldn't use the Gear VR or that you should take a 10-15-minute break for every 20 minutes of use. It all sounds like common sense, but we'd say it's important information to read through, especially regarding how long you should use it for.
Once you’re through that you’ll be able to set up the all-important Oculus app and various Samsung Gear VR services. The next step is to begin installing apps and games that range from 60-70MB up to just less than 1GB. Downloading content can be done from the app on the phone or through the Oculus interface, but we’d suggest doing it on the former because once inside the interface, it’s a tad fiddly.
Now you’re ready to return back to the headset and clip the Note back in place. We’d also suggest plugging in a pair of headphones at this point as well, which is easily done through the cutout on the left side of the visor to get access to the headphone jack. You can listen through the Note 4’s speakers, but decent headphones provide a far more immersive experience harnessing the 3D spatial sound technology packed inside Samsung’s phablet.
When loading up the Gear VR for the first time, youl get to see the Gear VR trailer, giving you a taste of different virtual-reality experiences like drifting through space or sitting with a family as they’re having dinner. It's a nice way to prepare you for what’s to come.
Next, it's time to get to know the main user interface, which feels more like an app storefront than the home screens you find on a phone or a tablet. You can navigate the tiled interface using the head tracking to control a cursor so that you can launch items. It's a bit like holding up a hand over something using the Xbox Kinect sensor.
The content is split up into what's available in the store and anything available in the library. Using the touchpad you can swipe through the menus and tap to select content. It's a little on the temperamental side and we often accidentally swiped instead of selected.
When you click on content, it's worth paying attention to the comfort ratings. This is basically an indication of how heavily immersive it is. If the description reads ‘comfortable for few’, there's a chance you might feel a little dizzy from the experience once you've removed the headset.
Holding down the back button for a couple of seconds will take you back to the main homescreen, where you'll find a collection of settings. Here you can activate the pass-through camera, letting you see the real world through the lenses if you feel like you’re being too anti-social. There's also the ability to adjust screen brightness, mute smartphone notifications, adjust the orientation and access a comfort mode to making the Gear VR less wearying on the eyes.
So what about the content? Well, there’s a good mix of stuff here to get a feel of what virtual reality has in store. There’s a series of 3D photos from locations across the world and 360-degree videos where you can scan your head all the way round.
Samsung is also pushing this as a personal theatre headset, a bit like Sony’s personal viewer, so you can watch 2D and 3D film trailers within the virtual-reality environment of an empty cinema, a private one at home or even on the moon. The stereoscopic experience varies, but it is a nice, intimate way to watch your flicks.
Back to virtual reality, there are roughly 30 pieces of content to access from the Oculus store. Thankfully all are free at the moment, but most are just demos. You can also import your own 2D, 3D and 360-degree content into the appropriate Oculus Cinema directory to watch back on the Gear VR.
The games and virtual-reality experiences all offer a good introduction to VR technology, but it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to play any in-depth titles like Elite: Dangerous, and that will come down to the fact that you only have a phone powering things.
Most of the games are graphically very basic, with simplistic game mechanics. Space shooter Anshar Wars and a first-person version of Temple Run make a good impression, while platformer Ikarus showed promise but was annoyingly short.
As for the experiences away from gaming, you can see what it’s like being centre stage at a live concert or more intimate performance, take a walk around an art gallery, fly through space to learn about the solar system, or even swim around a virtual aquatic safari park. The prospect of being able to explore locations you’d never be able to afford to go to is just another reason why virtual reality could have an exciting future.
Sadly, with the Gear VR the resolution needs to be much better for it to truly feel like you’re somewhere else.
After taking the headset off for the first time, the big positives that really spring to mind are that the 360-degree head tracking works extremely well, and that there’s little sign of latency. Sadly, though, it's the resolution that really breaks the illusion of immersion.
Samsung has taken the Note 4’s 2K 1600 x 2560-resolution display and split it in two to share between the Gear VR’s lenses. That gives you a 960 x 1080 resolution for each eye. It’s entirely the same scenario you have with the Oculus Rift, and pixellation is clearly visible.
Like the Rift, gaming seems to offer the greatest potential for VR, although most of the currently available titles are either demos or very simple, uninspiring and repetitive. You can also see the appeal of visiting locations and being up close at concerts, but only when the resolution greatly improves.
The software can be buggy as well. Sometimes, content can take an age to load or simply doesn’t load up at all, and a few of the games were a little glitchy at times. The calibration has some issues, despite the presence of a proximity sensor – when you take the headset off momentarily and place it back on, you can find yourself having to twist your neck in another direction to re-calibrate.
Comfort should be another issue raised here. When you put the Note 4 into the headset, it dramatically changes the weight enough to make the head and neck feel a little under strain. The soft eye cushion can get a little sweaty as well, and glasses wearers are going to struggle wearing these at the same time as their specs. If you can switch to contact lenses, then do so.
Using the Gear VR beyond 30 minutes is hard work on the eyes and can leave you feeling a little bit dizzy – especially if you’ve spent most of the time arching your neck around trying to shoot spaceships.
There’s also the issue of motion sickness. While we can’t say we particularly experienced it, there’s every chance someone could. In fairness, Samsung does suggest those regular breaks to help prevent it. Ensuring the Gear VR is properly calibrated using the focal adjustment dial will also help address the queasy factor.
The Gear VR, like the Oculus Rift, feels like a glimpse into an exciting future for virtual reality. Every virtual-reality newbie we got to try it on had the very same “this is the future” reaction. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mask some of the problems with the hardware and the lack of content that make it tough to recommend.
We’re not convinced the Gear VR will have much of a shelf life, especially with Samsung’s track record of turning around product updates, and that’s likely to put question marks over the long-term support for this version.
Cost is an issue here as well. Even £180 is a lot to pay for such a limited VR headset, but it’s worse when you realise that the £600 Note 4 is essential to the experience.
We’d wait for the second or third generation of Gear VR. By that point the resolution of accompanying phones should have improved and so will the content.
SEE ALSO: Best Google Cardboard Apps for VR
Samsung’s VR headset looks like it’s consumer ready, but the disappointing resolution and lack of great content mean it’s still a work in progress. At present, it also only works with the Galaxy Note 4.
Trusted Reviews is part of the Time Inc. (UK) Ltd Technology Network