It's just after 6 p.m. on a Monday night, and I'm lost. And soaked. The Nemesis, one of my favorite ships in the game Eve Online but just a sneaky, cloaking foe in Eve Gunjack, has flattened my latest high score attempt. The glass that held my post-work apéritif, the same glass I'd so carefully positioned on a table behind me, to my right, is now apparently in front of me, to my left. The lovingly mixed Manhattan it contained is in my lap.
Such are the hazards of reviewing the Gear VR, the accessory built by Samsung with help from VR pioneer Oculus, which costs $99 in the US and £80 in the UK. In Australia you can pick up the Gear VR for AU$159.
The headset converts Samsung's latest Galaxy smartphones into a full-on mobile virtual reality headset. It's the third model, but the first that feels ready for prime time, with a decent batch of games and apps to choose from. Each of them effectively transports you to a variety of "you are there" 3D landscapes, letting you explore your surroundings by tilting and shaking your head, or totally spinning around without fear of leaving the "screen."
One of the first things I tell people who try the Gear VR is to sit down, preferably in a swivel chair. Competing VR devices like theand the need to be wired to a PC, offering up a glorious trek into imaginary virtual spaces, but limiting your movement in the physical world. There's no such limitation when a smartphone is powering the experience, so there's a temptation to stretch your legs and meander. This can prove comical for onlookers, but embarrassing for you. You'd think I'd learn by now that a rolling chair is just as dangerous as stumbling about in the dark, but when you're solving puzzles on far-flung islands, racing a go kart down colorful tracks or just blowing up spaceships that are charging from all sides...well, mistakes are made.
This year, we'll see at least three major new VR devices: the aforementioned HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, as well as PlayStation VR. I've tried them all, and -- yes -- they all offer a more powerful illusion, as you'd expect from something that's powered by a PC or PlayStation 4. But the Gear VR is the only one of the bunch you can take with you. And while it's not going to make me switch to a Samsung phone, it's an inexpensive, must-have purchase for existing owners of compatible Galaxy phones who are gamers itching for a glimpse at the future.
The mobile VR experience
I'm of two minds about this whole mobile virtual reality thing. You'll look silly with a headset and smartphone strapped to your face, but it's far more approachable than devices like the Oculus Rift or the Vive, which require you to be tethered to a PC. And your smartphone is always with you: toss the Gear VR into a backpack, and your virtual escapades will follow you wherever you go. The Gear VR experience is tied to the hardware that's powering the experience, which is a nod in Oculus and Samsung's favor here. The new Gear VR is light and compact, which lends itself well to extended sessions spent strapped to your face. The original Gear VR only worked with the Galaxy Note 4. The Innovator Edition for the Galaxy S6 worked with the S6, and the S6 Edge. This time, you've got more options. The phones tuck into a docking port cryptically labeled "A" or "B" -- the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ fit into A, and you'll need to slide the port over to B to fit the 5.1-inch Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge. The Gear VR will also support the new Samsung Galaxy S7, and Galaxy S7 Edge.
Once your phone is docked, the spring-loaded clasp on the opposite end of the headset will lock your phone into place and the Oculus app will fire up, dropping you into a virtual world. There's a TV set off to the side, some couches, and what looks like an infinity pool. You can look around in 360 degrees, but you can't actually interact with any of the stuff around you: you're just at the Oculus menu, where you'll pick the apps and games you want to check out.
The Oculus app on your phone is rendering a pair of images, side by side; when you look through the Gear VR's biconvex lenses, your brain is tricked into merging them into a single image. There's a focus wheel up on top of the headset that'll let you adjust the image until it's just right. I don't wear glasses, but my CNET colleague Scott Stein found that while the Gear VR Innovator Edition for the S6 didn't fit with glasses, it worked just fine once he'd adjusted the focus to his liking. The new Gear VR offers a far better fit for specs, but he found the goggles didn't fit as tightly, which led to fogging. And the focus wheel doesn't accommodate his "horrible vision" (-9) without glasses anymore, though it suited others well.
Pair the optical illusion with the motion sensors in the phone that track your head's movements, and you've got the fairly convincing illusion that you've been transported to an entirely new space -- the best games and apps will give you a compelling reason to stay there.
The phone you choose makes a difference, too: the Gear VR's latch mechanism means they'll all fit snugly, but the phones with a smaller display will have a slightly lower field of view. Conversely, the smaller devices have screens with a greater pixel density (577 pixels per inch versus 518 pixels per inch, on the larger phones), so you're going to find a slightly crisper experience there.
I spent most of my time trying Gear VR on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, and I didn't find the slightly lower pixel density problematic. The hardware was also well equipped to handle all of the experiences I threw at it, from fast-paced games to sedentary video experiences.
Most of the action in games and apps is handled by the touchpad on the right side of the device and looking around, and it works well enough. On the Gear VR the touchpad gets a few grooves, so it's shaped like the directional pad you'd find on a gamepad -- this makes it much easier to swipe in the direction you're looking for. There's also a little flat nub in the center so your fingers can always find their place while you're fumbling about in the dark.
A back button sits above the touchpad; it's been moved to the right just a smidgen, so it's easier to find than it was on the Innovator Edition. The simple, ski-goggle-like elastic bands on the side remain easy to adjust, and the vertical strap found on the Innovator Edition loses its plastic guard, which makes for a much more comfortable fit. It's also optional, so you can get rid of it if you don't want to mess up your hair.
Developing all new experiences that rely on gaze and one hand will definitely be a challenge for developers, but some of the best games available in the Oculus Store are already doing a great job. You can always grab a Bluetooth controller for a more traditional approach -- I've been using the SteelSeries Stratus XL. The Gear VR doesn't support the sort of motion controls you'd find on more robust platforms, like the Oculus Rift's Touch controller, or the HTC Vive's wands, which is a bummer -- virtual reality feels far more immersive when you're going hands-on, but the mobile experience simply isn't there yet.
Gaming in VR is also obviously a bit different than your standard PC- or console-based fare, doubly so when you're gaming with a smartphone. A bluetooth headset is a must: the audio pumping out of your phone's speakers isn't nearly as engrossing as having the enclosed aural experience you'll get from a good set of headphones. I definitely recommend sitting in a swivel chair. The Gear VR doesn't offer support for the sort of head-tracking you'll find on the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, so you aren't going to be peering under or around anything.
You also won't be able to lean back or forward either, which can make certain experiences feel disjointed. Oculus Arcade is one example: it emulates the feeling of strolling into an arcade and playing classic games like Pac-Man or Sonic the Hedgehog, but you can't lean in to get closer to the arcade cabinets. And while the lack of wires technically means you're free to move, you'll probably just bump into things or people around you -- I have enough trouble figuring out where I am after spinning in circles on a chair.
You'll want to make sure that the Gear VR is strapped firmly to your head: Samsung says it has improved the venting, but if the headset is at all loose things start to fog up rather quickly. Keep a microfiber cloth handy, too. The fingerprints and stray gunk that usually sits on our smartphone screens looks downright unsettling when magnified by the Gear VR's lenses. And do yourself a favor: turn on your phone's Do Not Disturb mode. I can't count the number of times I was fully immersed in a video or game, only to be ripped out into the real world by an instant message or text from a coworker or friend. Oh, keep a charger nearby too: VR will devastate your phone's battery life.
Playing in virtual worlds
Developers are still experimenting with VR's possibilities, which can lead to a lot of fun little experiences to discover. There are gems like Temple Gates Games' Bazaar, a simple magic carpet ride simulator that sees you coasting along a colorful world, exploring and picking up trinkets. But it quickly devolves into a nerve-wracking, item-juggling fiasco: fill your chest with gold and snacks, and you'll have no room to carry the shield you need to block projectiles, or a crossbow and arrows to fend off snakes. But now that you're armed to the teeth, your belly's rumbling because you're out of food, or you don't have a med kit to patch yourself up after that alligator got the drop on you. And you still need to save a spot for the key you need to unlock the exit.