Samsung officially unveiled Wednesday its virtual reality headset. It is what the Korean smartphone maker was rumored to have been developing in partnership with Oculus, the start-up company that kick-started the VR revolution with its yet unreleased Oculus Rift headset.
The Gear VR headset is one of the biggest stars at this year's IFA conference, where technology companies flocked to Berlin, Germany to introduce their newest gadgets. While Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus, both of which haven't been introduced to the general public yet, are seen to be the high-end players in the budding 3D industry, the Gear VR is the first virtual reality headset to make it to mass market, giving Samsung the advantage to pave the way for the mainstream adoption of virtual reality.
Unlike Rift, however, which needs to be plugged in to a computer to work, the Gear VR only has a slot where users can insert their Samsung smartphone to act as the heart and brains of the headset. It looks pretty simple, but Samsung has equipped the device with an array of sensors to track the user's head movements and a touch pad on the side for selecting options on display.
Those who were lucky enough to try on the Gear VR at IFA say Samsung was generous about the padding, making it comfortable to have the boxy device strapped to their faces for long periods of time. And given Samsung's partnership with Oculus, which provided the software for the Gear VR, first users are not surprised to find that the virtual reality experience provided by Samsung is comparable to the experience one can get using the second developer's kit for Rift.
At only $200 apiece, Samsung's Gear VR headset looks like the best holiday gift of this year, but not so fast. IFA attendees may exclaim about their almost-real, immersive virtual reality experience watching a Coldplay concert, diving with blue whales and touring Tony Stark's laboratory in "The Avengers," but buyers might have a few things holding them back.
For one thing, the headset is -for now- only compatible with Samsung's new Galaxy Note 4. Samsung has not announced prices yet, but its latest smartphone is likely to be pegged at the $700 price point. The new 5.7-inch phablet boasts of a quad-HD AMOLED display, making it better than the 960 x 1080p resolution used for Rift's own screen. However, the limited compatibility and the high-end pricing for the Note 4 will likely prevent users from purchasing a Gear VR for the holidays.
Moreover, Samsung has yet to find viable practical applications for its Gear VR. While Rift and Project Morpheus are big in the gaming arena, the use of Note 4's processing power could limit the headset's applications to concerts and travel videos. Samsung also says the Gear VR can be used for pilot and healthcare training, but analysts are cautious of predicting bright future for the headset.
"I don't see Gear VR being big in enterprises in the short term, except perhaps in some highly specialized spaces," says Jack Gold, analyst at J. Gold Associates. "VR glasses for enterprises will require more of a see-through ability, kind of like Google Glass does, than a blocked vision approach like Gear VR."
Gold also questioned the existence of content that can be watched through Samsung's headset, noting that there are not too many apps for the Note 4 to be used with 3D features. Laguna Beach-based NextVR, however, says it plans to offer live music and sporting events specifically for the new Samsung device.