Samsung's Note 4-powered VR headset, created with an Oculus partnership, is finally on its way to customers. Just don't expect the same experience as a dedicated Oculus PC gaming rig -- this mobile experience is tailored to a different crowd.
Samsung Gear VR is a virtual-reality headset that uses the company's new Galaxy Note 4 as its main display. It looks a little like an Oculus Rift, and a "powered by Oculus" logo appears on the side. But it reminds me most of Google's Cardboard VR headset: open the front, slide the phone in, snap it shut, and you have a VR experience that you strap to your head.
The Gear VR was unveiled back in September, but now it finally has a release timeframe in the US: December. It's now known as the "Gear VR Innovator Edition," and will be available in two versions: standalone for $199, or bundled with an as-yet-unspecified Bluetooth controller for $249. The release window news broke at Samsung's latest developer conference (among other news on smart homes and wearable health tech). The pricing was disclosed later in the day via a blog post from Oculus that also announced the availability of a software development kit (SDK) for Oculus VR devices. (A representative from Samsung confirmed the pricing to CNET.)
I got to try one in New York back in September, and while I have a ton of questions about what sort of software it'll run, it definitely works. At times, it even felt almost as good as Project Morpheus or the Oculus Rift itself. But while this VR headset boasts impressive screen resolution, it's a more pared-down mobile VR experience overall.
Oculus Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus are more robust wired, PC and console-focused game accessories with more advanced head-tracking. Samsung Gear VR is untethered and needs only a phone. In that sense it's spiritually closer to Google's two VR initiatives shown off at its I/O developer's conference, Google Cardboard and the Project Tango VR goggles.
Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition, as this first collaboration is called, seems to focus on panoramic and immersive 3D VR video instead of games. Much of the included content is video and entertainment-based.
An included 16GB microSD card in the Innovator Edition will have some 360-degree video and 3D movie trailers pre-installed.
Samsung's content for this headset seems to focus on entertainment rather than games -- virtual IMAX presentations, a 3D VR Cirque du Soleil collaboration, Dreamworks VR and a customized Vevo music video app -- that's clearly exploring the nongaming side of VR. And, a newly announced 360-degree camera will be launched alongside the Gear VR that will record 3D panoramic videos to use with the platform. Other apps announced so far include a Marvel Avengers experience, Harmonix Music VR, a digital video app called M-Go Advanced, an aquatic simulation called theBluVR, and a few mobile games -- an espionage game called Protocol Zero and Temple Run VR.
A special suite of Oculus software will run on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, emphasizing different hubs. Oculus Home will be a "content discovery center," Oculus Store will let you shop for new apps, Oculus Cinema will be a virtual movie theater, and Oculus 360 Videos and Photos will be a panoramic viewer for photos and videos.
Samsung's representatives claim that both the Note 4's "Quad HD" 2,560x1,440-pixel display and more powerful Snapdragon 805 processor are required to make Gear VR work. Whether or not that's technically true, the added processing boost and extremely high-res screen should both make VR-oriented experiences look crisper and play more smoothly.
I slipped Gear VR over my own glasses, but you can also just adjust a top focus dial to fit your own prescription. (Although my -9 vision barely worked with one Gear VR headset's focus dial.) Velcro straps on its top secure the headset, while rubbery ski-goggle-style seals secure the headset to your face, just like on Oculus.
A dedicated square touchpad on the right side, plus volume rocker and back buttons, turn the headset into its own game controller of sorts. Finding the trackpad with my finger took some practice, but it offered extra levels of navigation alongside the gyro and accelerometer-based head motion controls.
Gear VR's specs, according to Samsung's press release, include an accelerometer, a gyro and magnetic and proximity sensors, plus a micro-USB 1.1 connection to the Note 4. The VR goggles offer a 96-degree field of view with under 20 milliseconds of photon latency.
I tried several demos in succession. During a virtual Coldplay concert, I saw the band perform in front of me while I turned around to see "fans" nearby, and a set of angel wings behind me. A virtual tour of Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron" let me explore objects, try on an Iron Man mask, and gawk at Tony Stark's lab. A series of fly-overs of nature scenery showed 3D virtual video panoramas of lions, grasslands, tundra and mountains. And a dogfighting space game set in an asteroid field made use of the trackpad, showing how it could be used for targeting and firing while playing.
Gear VR doesn't have the sort of camera-tracked additional positional accuracy that the latest Oculus and Project Morpheus headsets do, so head movement seems largely limited to tilting and turning. But it worked well through all four demos. The display was crisp, too; yes, I saw individual pixels, but the experience seemed less pixilated than with an Oculus. No surprise, since Oculus has used a 1,920x1,080-pixel display.
But Oculus also incorporated specialized antiblur technology that, paired with improved head-tracking, aimed to reduce perceived nausea. It was hard to tell whether Gear VR handled blur and nausea well during my brief time with Samsung Gear VR. Images seemed crisp, but I did get woozy after a few of those safari flyovers.
Of course, since Gear VR runs on an Android phone, there's a question of what games and software will run on it. Samsung promised that existing Oculus games might be relatively easy to port over. However, that's the problem: a new class of games and software will need to be made specifically for Gear VR. It's not a game console, and it certainly doesn't have the horsepower of serious PC hardware. The one gaming demo I saw had the level of graphics you'd expect from an average smartphone game.
This could shape up to be one of the first real VR headsets to actually go on sale anywhere, beating Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus to the punch. But will being early be enough?
Editors' note: This story was originally published on September 3, 2014, and updated extensively on November 12 with release date and pricing information.