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Hands-on with the Samsung Gear VR

25 Sep 2014 | Rasmus Larsen |

One of the most important announcements from Samsung during IFA was Gear VR - a virtual reality headset for your phone. Gear VR has been developed together with Oculus, who is considered the inventor of modern VR technology. We had a chance to try several demos on Gear VR and here are our experiences.

Gear VR is promising

Oculus Rift is great and we have already reviewed the latest Oculus Rift DK2. So we were obviously curious to try Samsung’s Gear VR that has been created in collaborated with Oculus.

Gear VR is a virtual reality headset for your phone. At the moment it works by inserting the Galaxy Note 4 (no other phones work at the moment) into the headset and starting an app. There are no cables, except those for the headphones. In essence, Gear VR is a mobile version of the Oculus Rift that requires input from a PC, but of course a phone does not have the processing power of a PC.

Samsung Gear VR

Inside the VR world you can look around by moving your head - just like with Oculus Rift, but with some limitations. We tried several different demos during IFA, including a DreamWorks demo, an IMAX theater, a Cirque Du Soleil show and a couple of games.

The best demo was probably the IMAX theater, which felt a lot like a real movie theater with seats and a huge screen canvas at the end. It felt like you could reach out and touch the chairs in front of you - except, you have no arms or body inside the VR world of the IMAX theather.

In another demo, we we sat on a chair on scene in the middle of a Cirque Du Soleil show. The artists interacted with us and we became part of the show where they would perform acrobatic moves around us. It felt a little less real, but still convincing.

Most of the games we tried were small, unimportant mobile games. We used a bluetooth game controller, but the wireless connection to the Note 4 was horrible - probably due to all the wireless signal at the show floors. However, the games did not come close to the PC games on Oculus Rift - not in graphics and not in gameplay. Frankly, the games for Gear VR were not very impressive, but of course the Oculus Rift has set a high bar.

Samsung Gear VR

Resolution is still too low

In a fourth demo, we flew in a helicopter over beautiful landscapes, the savannah wildlife, as well as cities such as New York. It was a great demo that allowed you to look around to explore the environment, but it also confirmed that the resolution of the Note 4 display is still too low.

Speaking of resolution, the Note 4 uses an OLED display with 2560x1440 pixels - it has more pixels than the Oculus Rift DK2. That is remarkable, but when you have a display this close to your eyes you will notice the pixels far more easily than on a TV or monitor - in fact it was hard not to get a bit distracted during the last demo. The graphics processor of the Note 4 might have played a role, but the display definitely had some issues.

We could clearly see the pixels and screen door effect - the black lines between pixels. It was also very clear that Samsung is using pentile pixels in the Note 4 OLED display. During several demos we saw a red, green or blue halo around moving objects, caused by the pentile pixel layout - "chromatic aberration" in Oculus terms. The slightly lower refresh rate of the Gear VR might have played a role, but VR is better off by relying on true RGB pixels. When you have a screen this close to your eyes, even the tinniest optical illusions take away from the “presence” feeling of virtual reality. Gear VR is also missing the “positional tracking” of the Oculus Rift. You can look around, up, down, but not around a corner or out over an edge. On the other hand, Gear VR felt fast and did not lag when we moved the head. It felt natural.

Overall, the Gear VR is a very interesting concept, which can potentially be used with other phones with some sort of adjustable bracket. The VR experience was better than expected, but not on par with Oculus Rift. The mobile games are really the biggest weakness right now, but it is still pretty amazing that you can create virtual reality on a phone. Gear VR feels like a more casual take on VR - and that is probably the point.

Samsung Gear VR will go on sale later this year. As our phones get faster and get better displays, it will surely take the experience to new heights. It is a very promising start.

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