Samsung Gear VR review

Review: Samsung Gear VR



How can a smartphone deliver a visual experience that is bigger and more impressive than the best 3D cinemas, and a gaming experience, which is more epic than any PC and game console can deliver? Let me just admit straight away that my expectations for Samsung Gear VR were set quite low, but in many ways it turned me into a believer.

Samsung Gear VR is the first virtual reality product for the consumer market. FlatpanelsHD has previously tested the first and second generation Oculus Rift developer kits.

Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
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Specifications

2560x1440
AM OLED
FOV (Field of View) 96 degrees (Note 5/Edge+)
Gyro
Accelerometer
Proximity
(HxWxD) 201.9 x 116.4 x 92.6 mm
318 gram
Micro USB
No built-in speakers, phone’s speakers used
Touchpad, Back button, Volume button, Focus setting
Compatible with Note 5, S6 Edge+, S6, S6 Edge
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Introduction

Samsung Gear VR is in part a complete entertainment platform, but in part just an accessory for Samsung’s flagship smartphones in the Galaxy S6 series (S6, S6 and S6 Edge Edge+) as well as the Note 5. It works by mounting the phone inside the cover through the micro USB connector. The Gear VR then utilizes the high-resolution displays and relatively powerful processing power of the phone. Gear VR is the first virtual reality product for the consumer market, and thereby the beginning of what many people see as a new era in digital entertainment.

Samsung has not developed Gear VR alone. It is the result of collaboration between Oculus VR (owned by Facebook) and Samsung. Oculus VR is the company behind Oculus Rift, which will be released in a few months from now. Rift is a more advanced virtual reality product, designed for use with a PC. Gear VR has been available for some time as an Innovator’s Edition for developers. The final version is in many ways the same product, just with some tweaks and improvements. The significant difference is that the software and hardware is now ready for general use.

Samsung Gear VR review


The technology

Gear VR has several sensors integrated into the headset, which in accuracy and response surpass those built into a smartphone. When strapping it to the face you look through two lenses that magnify the screen to cover a fairly large part of your visual field. Imagine looking through a ski mask; the field of view of Gear VR is roughly equivalent. The software and hardware of Samsung’s phones have been optimized to deliver a VR experience with the lowest possible movement latency, making it seems as though you are really present in the virtual space.

Most of the time you forget that you are looking at a screen and that the virtual world encompasses your reality. It is one of those things that you have to experience on your own body to really understand it. I would urge anyone with an opportunity to try out Gear VR to do so.

Samsung Gear VR review


First impressions

Gear VR is delivered in a cardboard box with no accessories, not even a cleaning cloth for the screen and lenses. There is, however, an additional strap for the top of the head. It provides extra support and I recommend that you use it for better comfort. Gear VR does not weigh much but still feels sturdy and well built. On the right side of the headset there is a touchpad with a button in the center. Directly in front you have volume control and on top there is a wheel for adjusting the focus of the lenses (for long and short-sightedness). Samsung has also made room for glasses inside.

The headset is very comfortable and is upholstered in soft fabric, which is the only area that is in contact with the face. You can use a mini jack in the phone to connect your preferred headphones. Alternatively you can use the phone’s built-in speakers. Both solutions work fine but it is clearly an advantage to plug in a good pair of headphones.

Samsung Gear VR review


Gear VR fits with both the regular Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge with 5.1" screens and the S6 Edge+ and Note 5 with 5.7" screens. There is a slider that adjusts the width between A and B. If you have one of the two smaller phones you will get a slightly smaller field of vision but slightly higher pixel pitch, and vice versa with the larger phones, a slightly larger field of vision but a slightly lower pixel pitch. The difference is not significantly and should not dictate your choice of smartphone. This test was carried out with Galaxy S6 Edge+.

The first time the phone is connected you are greeted by a robotic female voice that asks you to take the phone out again, and at that point it automatically starts installing software from Oculus VR. After installation you will be asked to input payment details so you can explore the store. The whole process takes about 5 minutes and is very effortless and streamlined. It requires absolutely no IT knowledge.

When you dismount the phone, it will automatically shift back to the standard Android home screen. It could not be easier and more convenient.

The first time you put on the headset of successful installation, you look into a futuristic virtual lounge that you can navigate with the use of the touch panel of the right side of Gear VR. If you have a bluetooth gamepad connected, you are asked if you want an introduction to gamepad control. Gear VR is compatible with standard Bluetooth gamepads for Android, but as said it is not bundled in the package and in many apps it is not a requirement. If you want the full potential, you will, however, have to buy a gamepad. It takes a few minutes to get comfortable using the touchpad on Gear VR but once you get it, it becomes fairly easy. All in all a very user friendly experience that should not scare anyone away from using Gear VR.

Samsung Gear VR review


User experience

The user interface resembles what you probably know from Xbox 360 or the new Apple TV, just in a more 3-dimensional space. You can look around and select an icon by tapping on the side of the headset. It is a fairly quick way to navigate and not much more cumbersome than, say, a remote or gamepad. The start menu partly consists of a store that lets you buy games and apps, and partly of a library of already-purchased games/apps. It is easy an intuitive and you never have to remove the phone from Gear VR.

Samsung Gear VR review


Once you buy a new app, you need to enter a four-digit code, and then just wait for it to finish downloading while browsing the other app in the store. If you open another game or app while downloading, it will pause the download process. This is a new initiative and is probably implemented to prevent overheating of the phone, which some users have reported. I did not experience anything during, but the phone surely gets quicte hot after prolonged use.

However, I miss some granular options. It is not possible to search or sort apps. It is not possible to select category, and no way to filter for, say "free” or "highest rated” apps. Since the library is already quite extensive, it can be hard to find the right things. All apps have ratings but I miss text reviews. Some apps are marked if there is a high possibility of motion sickness. Compared to the first versions of Oculus Rift, I experience almost no discomfort from using Gear VR. In fact, the only time I felt some motion discomfort was while using the "Omega Agent” app, so I cannot recommend this app personally. While browsing the store I also miss some better previews than picture – for example video previews. It would also be cool if each developer had the option to design its own section, like on Steam. I hope to see these things implemented in the near future because otherwise it is a very user friendly experience. Currently, the Oculus Store is not as good as some of the more established app stores.

The selection of free and paid app is excellent when you consider how new this product it. Prices typically range from $3 to $15, with most titles falling in the $5-10 range. I never lacked new content during my two weeks of intensive testing. The store is continuously updated with new content. I do miss some games with a bit more depth but this is obviously only natural at this point in lifetime. We can expect to see better games in time as the platform matures.


Samsung Gear VR review


Oculus Video, Netflix VR & Oculus Social

Netflix VR is, in many ways, comparable to the classic Netflix experience, and in some ways not at all comparable. You are placed in a virtual space, in this case a ski lodge, in front of a giant screen, which corresponds to approximately 100”. The screen is Netflix as we know it. The only thing that is different is that it all takes place in a virtual space. It is an experience that stands in sharp contrast to the experience of watching Netflix on a tiny smartphone screen, and more similar to watching Netflix in a well-equipped home theatre. You can also watch Netflix VR as a floating screen in a completely dark room. In this other scenario, you can select how big you want the screen to be, which is practical if you lie down.

Oculus Video is a video app player that works with movies that you put on the phone. It can also stream content from Vimeo, Twitch, and others. In Oculus Video you can select to watch the video in a large cinema with a giant screen, in a living room setting, on the moon, or as a fly on the wall looking at a gigantic smartphone. It is a pretty convincing experience to watch movies in the cinema mode, but I miss the option to select seat and adjust the canvas size.

Video in VR is a great way to kill time on a flight or maybe even watching a movie with a friend who is in a different location. This is what Oculus hopes to do with Oculus Social. At the moment, the app only allows you to watch a few Vimeo and Twitch channels together with other people; you select a cartoon-style avatar and sit in the virtual cinema while being able to talk to the person "next to you”. It is a simple idea but the potential is huge. Now let’s get something similar for the Netflix VR app.

Samsung Gear VR review


The resolution of Gear VR is high enough to enjoy movies and TV series on Netflix or Oculus Video, but it is not the 1080p experience that we know from Blu-ray. On a very large canvas it looks like a reasonably good DVD picture but on a small virtual canvas there are simply too few pixels to recreate a satisfying viewing experience. That might sound strange but in the virtual world things are different from a standard monitor. That is because you can look around in the virtual space where pixels from the smartphone display are spread out over a very large area. So if you place a small screen in the virtual world it will only utilize a small segment of the full resolution. I believe that the next generation of 4K smartphones will provide something similar to HD resolution, which will certainly improve the visual quality of VR. That being said, I much prefer watching movies on Gear VR to a tiny phone screen and I cannot wait to see what the future brings.

360° video

When 360° videos are made in true 3D it looks very convincing in VR. You can look around like you would look around in the real world. Imagine the potential for theatre, sports, events, helicopter and rollercoaster rides, and similar experiences. This is a much more natural experience than those 3D cinemas that try to imitate the experience. You simply feel "present”, rather than feeling like looking at something from a distance. The team from Jurassic World has created a 360 degree 3D video, which is great. I have been using it to showcase 360 VR video to friends and games with no prior interest in VR. Every time, it brings a smile to the face. It is super engaging and very intimate. Several of my friends felt so afraid that they had to take off the glasses. At first glance, it can be quite overwhelming.

Samsung Gear VR review


The resolution of the Galaxy S6 is 2560x1440 pixels, and it is high enough to deliver a good experience and high enough to make individual pixels indistinguishable and hide pixel borders. However, when watching 360 videos you will often experience that the video drops to lower resolution than the screen can deliver. My guess is that S6 simply falls short, and that it cannot deliver the processing power required for high-resolution 360 videos. I’m excited to compare Gear VR with Oculus Rift, which relies on a PC for processing, in a few months from now. Games, on the other hand, are clearly reproduced at higher resolution on Gear VR.

YouTube also offers 360 videos. There is a small icon in the lower right corner of YouTube videos that are shot in 360. You can also save videos from YouTube to the phone and open them in Gear VR.


Samsung Gear VR review


Games

Samsung Gear VR review
Gaming is one of promising aspects of VR. Typically, mobile games are quite limited because of the small screen and touch interface but with Gear VR you enhance the gaming experience significantly.

A bluetooth gamepad is not a requirement but to enjoy the best games on Gear VR you need to invest in one. Conversely, there are lots of games that work just fine without it. These are typically the simple games.

Among the many games I tested during the review period, I want to highlight a few that I recommend.
Land’s End is a good introduction to VR without a gamepad, and a great game for demonstration purposes. You quickly understand the concept and what VR is capable of compared to a regular monitor – and especially a tablet and phone. It feels more like a demonstration than an actual game, even though there are small tasks as you progress. It takes approximately one hour to finish but it is a lot of fun while it lasts. If it was longer it would definitely score higher. 4/6

Samsung Gear VR review


Adventure Time is a good example of how third-person games can work in VR. It is often one of the first things I show off to other people, especially if they are used to playing games. It feels like you are attached to a kind of line or track that guides you through the game level. You are looking down at the person that you control. It is a very comfortable gaming experience and more fun and intimate than a standard monitor or TV. This game is not yet available on the European market, but by using an American DNS you can buy it. 4/6

Samsung Gear VR review


Herobound: Spirit Champion is also a third-person platform game. It feels like a professional production and is in many ways similar in style to the Legend of Zelda games. Playing it feels a bit like watching a puppet show unfold below you. The game is three hours in length and I can strongly recommend it. 5/6

Samsung Gear VR review


Smash Hit VR might be familiar to iPhone or Android owners but it is one of the new experiences for VR. The original game is addictive but it is nothing compared to the VR version, which almost puts you in a trance-like state. It is a super catchy VR experience. 4/6

Samsung Gear VR review


Demonstration

As part of the review, I decided to go out and let friends and family try Gear VR. I exposed it to people with an interest in tech as well as people with no particular interest, at work and at family gatherings. I think I demonstrated it to about 50 people over the span of two weeks.

Most of them had never head of the Gear VR before, but virtually everyone was surprised and interested to know more. The general attitude towards the experience was very positive. I have previously demonstrated smartphones, tablets, and game consoles to people but have never received the kind of feedback that I got with Gear VR. It is fun demonstrating VR to other people because it often beats their expectations by a wide margin. People are simply not prepared for what they are about to experience.

I have previously demonstrated the Oculus Rift development kit to people, and back then most people mentioned the low resolution and the fact that you can see black borders between pixels; the pixel grid. Fortunately, Gear VR is not plagued by the same issues. It seems to have crossed the threshold of too low resolution. On the other hand, several of them still mentioned the limited resolution of 360 degree videos.

The effect particular apps and videos have on people varies a lot. One app that simply enjoyable to one person can be almost overwhelming to another. During my demonstrations, I never found just one experience that appealed to everyone. However, everyone is impressed by VR once you find the right demo for them, and most come away inspired with ideas of what could work in virtual reality. Several were negative about the fact that Gear VR only work with Samsung’s Galaxy S6 phones, especially the iPhone owners. I can easily relate.

No one mentioned motion sickness after trying Gear VR but one mentioned that it caused some eyestrain.

The conclusion must be that in order for VR headsets to be successful, Samsung and others have to get people to try them.

"The first limitation is the lack of positional tracking"

Gear VR or. Oculus Rift?

The fact that Gear VR only works with a mobile phone presents a number of limitations compared to the full-feature solutions that will launch later in 2016, including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.

The first limitation is the lack of positional tracking, which is the ability to register where your head and hands are located in the physical space outside of VR. Positional tracking is important because it allows you to stand up or sit down, which Gear VR cannot register. Gear VR does not register when you move you head (besides the 360 rotation) so you cannot look around corners in the physical space or pull back. This can at times provoke an uncomfortable feeling of disconnect. You learn to adapt but moving around too much in VR without positional tracking is not good.

The second limitation is that a smartphone of course has its limitations in respects to 3D graphics and frames per second performance. It is evident that many apps have sacrificed resolution and details to achieve good enough fps performance. Although the display resolution in S6 is 2560x1440 pixels, most 3D graphics are rendered in 1920x1080 and then scaled back up to 2560x1440 for Gear VR.

I am, however, still pleasantly surprised by how much Gear VR can achieve even with these limitations. We will probably see a drastic change in picture quality over the next generations of Gear VR.

The third limitation is the field of view that Gear VR can reproduce. It is probably only a few degrees more narrow than the Oculus Rift but it is enough to affect the level of "immersion”. One example is the scale of the world inside the virtual space. Only with a wide enough field of view will you get butterflies in the stomach when looking out over the edge of a high point. The field of view also affects how real objects look in the virtual space.

I did not get the rush of looking out over an edge while testing Gear VR but many of the people I demonstrated it to did feel it. It probably depends of one’s personal tolerate levels. My personal threshold is just above what Gear VR can deliver.

The more expensive VR headsets are not held back by these restrictions but they have other limitations such as cables and hardware requirements. At this point in time, I do not see the mobile Gear VR experience as a genuine competitor to the more full-featured headsets. The products have very different purposes and appeals.

On the other hand, after trying Gear VR for an extended period, I have to say that the quality of the mobile VR experience is closer to what Oculus Rift can deliver than I have thought possible.

Conclusion

I was one of the doubters when Oculus VR announced that they would make a mobile VR headset together with Samsung. I was afraid that it would distract Oculus from making the Oculus Rift the best it could be, especially because John Carmack was hired to spearhead the development of the software for Gear VR. It has to be important for them.

Now that I have tried Samsung Gear VR I understand why mobile VR is so important. In the long term, I have no doubt that this is where the future of entertainment lies, and it is mobile VR that will reach the masses. It is a portable experience, even within the house, and it requires no bulky PC or long wires. Gear VR is very comfortable to use and I could easily use it for several hours at a time. The battery will last about 3 hours on one charge. The mobile VR experience is something that wants to return again and again.

Sure, there are obvious limitations compared to the stationary VR solution, and I must admit that I would not be satisfied with Gear VR alone. The difference in picture quality and level of presence is still significant. However, if you do not own a powerful PC Samsung’s Gear VR is not a bad compromise. I’m also convinced that the two can live side-by-side. I, personally, would probably buy both.

In many ways, Gear VR is more of a game console than an accessory. It has its own interface and its own app store. It is a platform just like Apple TV. Gear VR’s success largely depends on the developers – and vice versa – and developer supports appears to be strong out of the gate.

If you own a Samsung Galaxy S6 I think you definitely should buy Gear VR. It is cheap and gives a whole new dimension to the phone. If you are buying a new Android phone you might even consider buying S6 over other high-end Android headset, just to use Gear VR. However, remember that you also need a bluetooth gamepad.

The choice is less obvious for iPhone owners like myself. I’m faced with a dilemma. I want to be able to use Gear VR but I do not want to switch to Android from iOS. If will probably end up doing it anyways because Gear VR is such a great entertainment companion to your phone.

Compare prices for Gear VR on Pricerunner


Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
DE retailer



Good UI
Selection of app/games
Good picture quality
Quite immersive
Mobility
Price


360 video is low-resolution
Gamepad sold separately
No positional tracking







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