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Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition: Oculus-powered Galaxy Note 4 add-on now available

Samsung's VR goggles aim to take on Google using Oculus technology and mobile phones, but the focus is clearly on entertainment instead of games.

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Samsung's Note 4-powered VR headset, created with an Oculus partnership, is finally on its way to those who choose to order one. 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's at last available to order. It's now called the "Gear VR Innovator Edition," and will be available in two versions: a standalone starting at $199, or bundled with a Samsung Bluetooth game controller starting at $249. You can order it on AT&T's website or Samsung's. And while the Gear VR's virtual-reality capabilities are better than you might think for a phone-based accessory, this is strictly early-adopter gear. Apps and games are available, but this is clearly an experimental product release.

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Sarah Tew/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.

The 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.

The 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 preinstalled.

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.

A special suite of Oculus software runs on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 in Gear VR mode, emphasizing different hubs. There's a store for to shop for new apps and a handful of media-focused experiences. Oculus Cinema will act like a virtual movie theater; Oculus 360 Videos and Photos are panoramic viewers for full wrap-around photos and videos. There are a handful of VR games from indie developers, including Bomb Squad, Darknet, Ikarus, and Minotaur Rescue VR. By design, a lot of these games are made to offer simple "snack-size" sessions of VR gameplay, but the few I've played work pretty well; they just require the side-of-head touchpad to navigate.

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Hey, it was pretty fun. Sarah Tew/CNET

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 the 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. The Gear VR's mounting bracket only works with the Note 4.

I slipped the Gear VR over my own glasses, but you can also just adjust a top focus dial to fit your own prescription. (My -9 vision just barely worked with the maximum focus setting on the Gear VR'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 the Oculus Rift.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 touchpad 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 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 flyovers 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 touchpad, showing how it could be used for targeting and firing while playing.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The 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, to a point; I still saw individual pixels, even though the screen is less pixelated than that of an Oculus Rift set with a 1080p display I used a year ago. But it's clear that VR hasn't hit its Retina Display moment yet -- photos and videos, in particular, were immersive but lacked that higher-res pixel-dense feel that tablets, phones and TVs have spoiled us with.

Specialized antiblur technology, similar to what was in recent Oculus Rift prototypes, does make the Gear VR less nausea-inducing. During several minutes of straight VR sessions I didn't find myself getting all that dizzy, except for a few of those safari flyovers.

Of course, since the 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 Rift games might be relatively easy to port over, and that Gear VR games and videos could easily port into desktop PC Oculus sets, too. However, that's the problem: a new class of games and software will need to be made specifically for the 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. But the immersion effect of the Gear VR is closer to premium-level gaming rigs than you'd think.

The Samsung Gear VR is the early first shot in virtual-reality gear you can actually buy. But that "early adopter" label might stick with VR tech for quite some time until the apps and games, and compatible phones, expand significantly.

Editors' note: This story was originally published on September 3, 2014, and updated on December 8 with updated availability, pricing and app information.

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