About a year ago, Samsung and Oculus released the Gear VR “Innovator Edition,” a phone holster/virtual reality headset that crossed the line between dev kit and early adopter hardware. This month, Samsung updated that early access hardware to a bona fide consumer product; the new Gear VR is Oculus’ first explicitly consumer-focused offering in its more than three years of public existence as a company.
We’ve now had a few days to play with that retail hardware, enough time to see that Oculus and Samsung have squeezed an impressive virtual reality experience out of common smartphone hardware and a relatively inexpensive headset. At $100, the consumer Gear VR is a no-brainer for anyone already using a compatible Samsung Galaxy phone. For everyone else, it’s an impressive piece of technology that could be a deciding factor in choosing your next phone.
The biggest refinements in the consumer Gear VR over last year’s Innovator Edition are more comfort. The headband has been completely redesigned. The curved, cushioned hard plastic of last year’s model has been replaced with a relatively simple elastic strap behind the head and an optional stiff cloth strap across the top of the skull. The new design makes it easier to adjust the device for a comfortable fit thanks to the Velcro pads that now flex properly around the hinges.
The consumer edition also shaves some 70 grams off the 380 grams of last year’s edition. That may not sound like a big deal, but it’s certainly noticeable, and it’s important in a device whose weight is carried by sensitive areas of your face and skull. The 2015 Samsung Galaxy phones that work with the consumer Gear VR (the Note 5, S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge+) are also a few grams lighter than the Galaxy Note 4 used in last year’s model, contributing to the apparent weight difference.
The consumer edition Gear VR also has redesigned cushioning around the eyes. This padding is more like a fabric-covered stuffed pillow than the hard, rubbery foam on last year’s model. Samsung and Oculus have also added some discreet under-eye vents for the consumer model. These provide enough airflow to avoid the occasional fogging that plagued the Innovator Edition and make the phone less likely to overheat after prolonged use. The downside to this change is that the vents let in some extra light from below, creating a little bit of glare in dark scenes.
All of these changes mean that the consumer edition of the Gear VR is much more comfortable than the Innovator Edition, which was already relatively comfortable. Compared to last year there is much less pressure around the eyes and on the back of the skull. The hardware isn’t exactly light enough to completely forget about it, but I could easily wear it for an hour at a time with no desire to take it off to let my face breathe or rest my eyes. If the Innovator Edition felt like tight-fitting ski goggles, for consumers the Gear VR feels more like extra-thick sunglasses resting on the bridge of your nose.
The new Gear VR also comes with changes to the touchpad on the side of the headset, which acts as the main tactile input for most VR apps. The touch area is now larger, with a more prominent lip to indicate the edge of the touch area. More importantly, there’s now a cross-shaped divot cutout to guide your finger through swipes in the cardinal directions, and a raised dot in the center of the pad to serve as the central tapping point.
On the one hand, these changes make it much easier to find the touchpad if you’re blindly looking around the side of the headset. They also make it easier to find out exactly where your finger rests when you tap and swipe. On the other hand, it’s a bit annoying when swipes across the touch surface are interrupted by these rough raised and lowered areas. I found myself missing the long, fluid swipes I could make undisturbed on the Innovator Edition’s uninterrupted surface.
If your only experience with mobile phone VR has been the cheap Google Cardboard or strap-on plastic holsters that just hold a smartphone in front of your face, you owe it to yourself to see the difference the Gear VR makes. The added tilt-sensing hardware and other processing this $100 headset offers makes the virtual world around you seem much more solid and stable than the bare sensors in a standard smartphone can provide.
Combine that extra hardware with the fast-refresh AMOLED screens on the Samsung Galaxy line, and you get the ability to look around 360-degree 3D environments with no discernible lag between your head movement and the change in your VR viewpoint. And because the Gear VR and phone form a self-contained wearable headset, you don’t have to worry about cables getting in the way or tethering you to a point in the room.
We tested the Consumer Gear VR with the Galaxy 6+ Edge. That has the same screen size, resolution and pixels per inch as the Galaxy Note 4 we used a year ago with the Innovator Edition, so the visual experience was, unsurprisingly, not very different.
The resolution is still just above the minimum achievable for a comfortable virtual reality experience; there’s just a small, blurry “screen door effect” in the space between pixels and some slightly noticeable jagged edges on slanted lines. Your experience might even improve a bit with the Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge, each of which has a higher pixel density. (The extra GB of RAM on the S6 Edge+ also seemed to improve load times somewhat.)
The main issue hampering the Gear VR’s ability to deliver totally immersive VR, as with the Innovator Edition, is that there’s still no positional head tracking. If you lean your head or body forward or side to side, the entire virtual world goes with you nauseatingly instead of staying firmly in place as you move through it.
App makers can work around this problem to some extent, but users still need to be careful not to shift their position too much. While Gear VR supports standard Bluetooth controllers, there’s no built-in support for any sort of hand-tracking solution available in other upcoming VR headsets. For most apps, instead of reaching in and messing with the world, you’re limited to looking around and interacting by using your head as a sort of virtual mouse pointer.
Then there’s the field of view – a relatively limited 96 degrees. This is so narrow that the black edges of the virtual view are slightly visible in your peripheral vision even when you’re facing straight ahead, and those edges are definitely noticeable if you shift your eyes left or right. It’s easy to forget this problem when you’re immersed in a well-designed 3D VR world, and you soon learn to just turn your head instead of shooting your eyes to see things to the side. Still, the tunnel vision effect limits the sense of presence a bit.
The S6 Edge+ battery seems to last about four hours of constant VR use, similar to what the Note 4 got on the Innovator Edition. However, the consumer Gear VR also includes a pass-through USB plug, so you can charge the phone while you explore the virtual world. This is especially useful if you have a portable USB charger that you can put in your pocket or lap to keep it from getting tangled up while running.
Impressive VR for entry-level consumers
We’ll soon have a more in-depth breakdown of the most compelling VR apps available for Gear VR. For now, we can safely call Oculus’ first consumer product a comfortable and surprisingly powerful entry-level virtual reality experience. If you’re already part of the Samsung Galaxy ecosystem and have a compatible phone, $100 is a steal to try it out. I wouldn’t recommend buying an expensive Galaxy phone only to try it, but if you’re considering a new phone and interested in trying out virtual reality at home, the Gear VR should be a major factor in your decision.
Frame image by Kyle Orland