The Samsung Gear VR is now available for $99. It's not a bad price, considering it is the very first virtual reality headset designed for mass consumption. But is virtual reality ready for the masses, and are the masses ready for virtual reality?
The new Gear VR is actually the second version of the headset. The first version, which Samsung calls the Innovator Edition, is a developer version designed to attract app developers to build content for the platform before it comes out for the general public. If you have never tried out the developer version, as most consumers may not have, you might find the Gear VR unwieldy to set up, despite the changes Samsung made to the design. You'll need, first and foremost, the headset itself, one of Samsung's flagship smartphones, an ear-cupping headset (preferably wireless) for fully immersive sound, and a wireless gamepad.
"The Gear VR wasn't easy to set up," says Anick Jesdanun of the Associated Press. "I had trouble figuring out where all the Velcro straps and hooks were supposed to go. I couldn't get the phone to snap into place. I needed the manual to find a lever I had to switch because I had a larger phone, the Note 5. Many consumers might need help from a tech-savvy friend or kid."
For all the trouble you may go through, however, the Gear VR may still be worth it. As expected, the consumer-ready version features a lot of major improvements over the Innovator Edition. The very first thing you'll notice, if you've tried on the developer version, is how much lighter and more comfortable the Gear VR is. Specifically, the headset now weighs 0.64 pounds, compared to the full pound weight of the developer version. In fact, as Will Shanklin of Gizmag says, majority of the headset's weight actually comes from the phone that serves as the screen. It also now has a bit more padding and more room for people wearing eyeglasses.
Unfortunately, as with all other VR headsets, the Gear VR is not without discomfort. Users can expect varying degrees of dizziness, motion sickness and nausea, depending on their tolerance. The problem comes from the discrepancy created between what your eyes see onscreen and what your brain expects to see. Samsung deals with this problem by incorporating more motion sensors into the headset and promises a 20-millisecond motion delay, but the problem is not completely eradicated.
"After maybe 40 minutes of gaming, I noticed my forehead beginning to get sweaty from the heat of the screen, the bridge of my nose aching," says Ben Popper of The Verge. "VR is funny that way. I didn't find the headset too heavy, but its physical, visceral effects came at a cost. Each half-hour session left me with a slight headache and disorientation that bordered on nausea."
Samsung and Oculus address this problem by including a comfort level indicator for each of the apps in the Oculus Store, with some apps labeled as "Comfortable for some" and "Comfortable for most." It's important that users deliberately adjust to their surroundings as they slip in and out of VR instead of fully jumping into the experience.
"As far as what you can tolerate, take it easy," TechCrunch's Drew Olanoff says. "If you're made dizzy easily, just try something light out like a Netflix movie. Get used to blocking out everything that's around you for a little while. There's nobody judging you or anyone scoring you on how 'VR cool' you are."
Speaking of apps, you will find a relatively huge variety of content from the Oculus Store. One of the early problems for virtual reality was the lack of content to make it truly consumer-ready, but the Oculus Store contains around a hundred apps and games as well as some 70 films from Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox.
And while some of these may be the short, gimmicky trailers you'd expect from a new platform (you can watch Netflix and other films on a virtual TV screen on a virtual couch), several pieces of content showcase just how far into the future VR can take us. Land's End, for instance, is a Zen puzzle game that has you floating over a gorgeous beach setting while solving puzzles. Popper describes how it feels like to walk and float about in VR while part of your brain knows there's another kind of reality out there.
"I knew the 'presence' it produced was strong when, standing on the edge of a cliff, I found myself unable to move my feet toward the edge — the lizard part of my brain insisting that the drop was real," he says. "Moving my feet wouldn't actually move me in VR space, there is no positional tracking, but I still couldn't do it."
Partly, it's because the Gear VR is not yet so technologically advanced to provide a really immersive experience. For instance, most reviewers have mentioned a light flickering on the side of the screen that's caused by the relatively low resolution of the Galaxy smartphones. As standalone handsets, the S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+ and Note 5 have a phenomenal number of pixels, but as VR screens, they're only fair enough for the price.
"You won't mistake what you see in there for reality — you can clearly make out pixels, like when you'd sit too close to an old tube TV," says Geoffrey A. Fowler of the Wall Street Journal. "Yet using the Gear VR for a week, I frequently found myself getting wrapped up in its virtual worlds, for longer and longer stretches."
So, is it worth picking up the Gear VR at the nearest store where it is available? If you already have one of Samsung's flagship phones, it is definitely a must-have. And since it's a less-than-$100 addition to your smartphone, it shouldn't be too much of a burden on the pocket. However, non-Samsung users will have to shell out $99 plus at least $650 for the price of one of the Galaxy flagships.
If you're considering spending several hundreds of dollars for a VR headset, you might want to consider waiting it out for the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive next year. Sure, they are going to cost so much more (since you'll need a powerful PC that'll at least cost $1,000), but they are also expected to offer so much more as well, including hand-tracking to allow you to interact with VR objects. Still, the Gear VR is certainly an important part of VR history, and it will be written down in the books as the first headset that launched accessible VR for the masses.
"Gear VR reminds me of the Atari 2600, that affordable game console that brought Pac-Man home," says WSJ's Fowler.
And the Oculus Rift is expected to be the SNES of VR.