Samsung has introduced a new virtual reality headset, the IFA 2014. Just how revolutionary these Oculus Rift-like goggles are and whether Samsung's take on VR looks promising, we'll reveal in our first hands-on Gear VR review.
Samsung Gear VR design and build quality
The Gear VR is a massive spectacle that makes its wearer suddenly look like a protagonist in a science fiction thriller. If you thought Google Glass got you weird looks, you ain’t seen nothing yet. A wide plastic box, held by three padded straps, is harnessed to your face like scuba goggles and provides a completely enclosed field of view. A semi-transparent cover hides the slot that encloses the Galaxy Note 4, which needs to be slotted into the headset to use the Gear VR. Samsung's vision of virtual reality is currently an exclusive accessory for the Note 4.
- Read our hands on Galaxy Note 4 review.
A rotary knob located at the top allows you to adjust the vision settings, so people with visual impairments can still use the Gear VR. On the right side you will find a large touch pad and two buttons for volume control. The Gear VR uses the speaker of the Note 4, but it can be connected via the headphone port or the Bluetooth connection of the Note 4 with any other speaker system.
Samsung Gear VR display
As you've probably guessed, the Gear VR does not have a dedicated display of its own and must instead use that on the Note 4. Although the Note 4 has a super sharp resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels (515 ppi), you can still clearly see individual pixels on the screen due to its proximity. In our time with the Gear VR we couldn't get a perfectly sharp image no matter how much knob twisting we did. Of course, this hugely affects the viewing experience, but of course, this is very early days for Samsung's virtual reality attempts.
Samsung Gear VR special features
The Gear VR seals the user off completely from the outside world, creating a new virtual reality in which you can lose yourself quickly. From the outside, you may look rather silly when moving your head around in all directions as you explore the VR space, but if you're the one with the headset on you'll quickly forget the outside environment. Navigating the menus of the Gear VR is handled by both the touch pad as well as head movements.
Samsung Gear VR software
The uses for the Gear VR are varied, from playing 360-degree shooters in connection with a gamepad from Samsung, watching movies with an authentic cinema hall feel to virtual sightseeing tours or a voyage to the depths of the sea or even outer space. Of course, there are also plenty of educational and useful use cases for the Gear VR too – it's not just a playful distraction – which is where the efforts of developers for the platform will be crucial.
In the short time we had with the Gear VR we experienced three different scenarios: in a shooting game we assumed the role of a spaceship pilot navigating meteorite fields and destroying enemy ships - an impressive gaming experience, where we had a similar sensation as being underwater, where you must look up down, left and right at all times to see what is coming from all directions.
A second demo put us in the audience of a cabaret, where we could watch a group of artists in preparation for a grand entrance. Left and right we saw the artists while looking ahead showed the stage and a glance over the shoulder showed the empty auditorium. The third demonstration was like an introduction to a new animated film, with an animated desert landscape full of boxes and in the company of several penguins. It was cool but weird , and nicely shows what the Gear VR can do.
Samsung Gear VR performance
In our short test, the VR Gear worked very well in conjunction with the Note 4, reacting smoothly to head movements and touch controls, even if the unfamiliar controls and navigation take a little getting used to.
At the moment the Gear VR is an exciting toy for me - no more, no less. How big the possibilities are and how much potential is contained within these glasses only time will tell. Samsung certainly has the budget to make it work though. In the meantime there's a few things Samsung can look at: even though the display resolution of the Note 4 is very high, it is still not high enough for a really sharp, pixel-free image. This is what would be required for a truly immersive experience.
After our brief test too, all three of us there managed to acquire a headache from our brief time with the Gear VR. The same happens with Glass in the early days too, so perhaps the effect will lessen over time. Or perhaps it will not. Even the ergonomics and comfort of the whole rig has a little work ahead of it with the imbalanced weight of the setup dragging the head forward. Even with these issues, the Gear VR represents a bright new future for well-funded and widely distributed VR development. The future of VR glasses has just begun.