To Samsung, virtual reality is ready for its close-up

By putting out a virtual reality camera, Samsung hopes to stoke the growth of the medium at everything from birthday parties to your kid's soccer game.

Josh Miller/CNET

The Gear 360 is a consumer camera that shoots videos and photos in 360 degrees.

Josh Miller/CNET

A gleaming black-and-white Gear VR headset rests on each of the 5,000 seats in a Barcelona convention hall. About 10 minutes into Samsung's Unpacked press conference, we're told to put on the virtual reality goggles.

What we see is a virtual unboxing of the venue, with the ceiling floating into space and the floor falling away to reveal Samsung's newest phones, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge.

"We believe in a world that is brighter, sharper, more convenient and more fun," DJ Koh, the new president of Samsung's mobile business, said Sunday during the company's press conference.

That Samsung would use its biggest mobile event of the year to demonstrate its VR technology to reporters, partners and other industry representatives underscores just how important the burgeoning technology is to the company. Device makers are always looking for the next big thing to wow us, and virtual reality, with its ability to transport us to new digital worlds, is a hot topic.

Almost every major tech company, including Samsung, HTC, Facebook's Oculus, Google and Sony, has already launched a VR headset or is working on one. Even Apple CEO Tim Cook said virtual reality is "really cool."

Virtual reality, however, faces the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. There's not enough content yet to convince consumers to buy a device, with only a sprinkling of experiments so far like watching a presidential debate or taking a tour of Mars. And there aren't enough users to justify companies investing in producing more content.

Samsung is attacking the problem from both sides. On Sunday, it unveiled a consumer camera to shoot videos and photos in 360 degrees with the hope of creating more virtual reality content. It also promised to give away a Gear VR unit to anyone who preorders a Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge phone.

This could mean that it's only a matter of time before our Facebook feeds become inundated with 360-degree videos of kids' birthday parties.

No one's quite sure how popular VR will be. Consulting firm Analysis Group earlier this month estimated that through 2020, the revenue generated worldwide from virtual reality and augmented reality (a similar technology that overlays images on top of the real world) will total somewhere between $2.8 billion and $126 billion. That's not a typo. The huge range suggests that no really knows what will happen with this technology.

Personal touch

Samsung, LG, Ricoh and the various other companies making virtual reality cameras hope that putting the technology in the hands of consumers will push the technology into the mainstream.

"Obviously we, Oculus and some other players have tried to curate...titles in VR, but what really creates that emotional connection [is when you get] that sharing of life's moments," Justin Denison, Samsung senior vice president of product strategy and marketing, said in an interview. "We think [VR home videos] will help it really, really take off."

Samsung believes this content will go further than virtual reality games or video from production studios in connecting with consumers.

Not everyone is so sure, though. There are some logistical issues with the cameras. For instance, how do you shoot a video in 360 degrees without appearing in the frame and how do you capture something that's interesting enough for people to watch? That can be a struggle when filming regular videos. And if you shake the camera too much while shooting, your friends could end up throwing up on you instead of enjoying your VR vacation video.

Samsung's camera also only works with a limited number of its own phones. Then there's pricing. The South Korean company hasn't yet revealed how much the Gear 360 camera will cost, but it probably won't be as cheap as the $99 (£80, AU$160) Gear VR headset.

What will determine VR's success is what you can actually do with it.

Since Gear VR hit the market in November, users have watched more than 1 million hours of video, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during a surprise appearance at Samsung's press conference. He snuck up on stage while the Gear VR distracted the audience members, eliciting gasps and mild hysteria when people realized he was there.

Zuckerberg made the case that virtual reality is "the next platform" and touted Samsung as an ideal partner for getting virtual reality to the mass market. The next step is to get the average Joe involved with VR video.

"It's not something that lots of people are going buy...but it's going to be a nice way to get more content available for their VR headset and to get people more familiar with VR in general," Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said. "Every little [bit] helps at this point."

--CNET's Josh Goldman contributed to this story.

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