Samsung Gear VR review: Virtual reality is here, and it runs on a smartphone
Samsung's goggles transform the Note 4 into a surprisingly capable VR headset. We plunged into apps and came out impressed.
I'm watching a movie trailer for "Interstellar." Large cornfields, distant mountains from far-off worlds. But I'm in a movie theater, watching these vistas. All around me are empty seats. The projector, far behind me, flickers. I reach for my armrest. I find my backpack. A bump, a jostle. A station announcement.
Actually, no, I'm not in a movie theater, I'm on a train. I take off the helmet. I'm at Penn Station. Why watch a movie trailer in a virtual movie theater rather than on my phone? I'm not sure I can answer that, but the experience was more profound than I could have imagined.
I've been in an aquarium on the sofa, someone's quiet apartment listening to music while lying in bed. Dare I explore the solar system while sitting on a public park bench?
This is mobile virtual reality: the Samsung Gear VR. It's a headset, like the Oculus Rift ; in fact, it's made in partnership with Oculus. But unlike Facebook's fabled virtual-reality goggles, you can buy the Gear VR now (in the US, at least) for just $199. It runs a handful of demo apps, experiences, panoramic photos and videos and games. But it only works with one phone: the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 , which -- when snapped into the headset -- acts as the display.
And, in the five years I've worked at CNET, I'm not sure I've experienced anything more magical.
Update, March 2017: There's a new and improved Gear VR for 2017, one compatible with more phones and more games. You may want that one instead -- or at least its new controller to go with this headset.
Original review continues:
Shock of the new: How the Gear VR works
At some point in the history of cinema, back in its dawn, there's that story of people screaming and ducking during a screening of an early Lumiere film of an oncoming train ("Train Pulling Into a Station," 1896). Maybe you saw the scene in "Hugo." Virtual reality is that type of experience, now. For the uninitiated, it can be jaw-dropping. Jarring. Off-putting. Addicting. With the Oculus Rift, Sony's Project Morpheus (I'll leave off Google's Cardboard and Project Tango VR, because they're far less effective, for now), you're sucked into a 3D world that ends up being a lot more absorbing and immersive than you expect. You're in the cockpit of a starship. You're battling a dragon. You can look all around you. It's there, in your face.
I never thought I'd see a technology that had that same effect as early Lumiere films, but VR is definitely it.
Samsung's Gear VR uses the same effective optical technology as those Oculus and Morpheus headsets: it's like a plastic set of ski goggles, with a front bracket that holds the Note 4 in place. It slots in via a Micro-USB plug, snaps on, and becomes the Gear VR's screen. Elastic Velcro straps on the sides and top keep the goggles in place. A proximity sensor turns the headset on the moment it's put on your head. Two large, curved lenses melt the display's split screens into spherically immersive panoramic video and 3D experiences. You can adjust focus with a top dial. The Gear VR isn't meant to work with glasses. I have a -9 prescription, and the Gear VR just barely worked by spinning the focus dial all the way to the end. Everybody else who tried it -- many of them who wear glasses -- had no problem.
The Gear VR takes the idea of VR and turns it mobile. There's no PC or game console to plug into: your phone (the Note 4, that is) does everything. The included kit you get for $199 -- the "Innovator Edition" -- includes the headset, a 16GB microSD card loaded with content plus an SD card adapter for loading on your own videos, and a zippered carrying case. The Gear VR is bulky, but takes up as much space in a backpack as a large pair of over-ear headphones.
Setting up the Gear VR took about 40 minutes: downloading a software update on my loaner AT&T Note 4, loading an Oculus app and creating an Oculus account. After popping in the Note 4 to the headset, a voice told me to pop the phone back out and continue the setup: a store offers more than a dozen apps and experiences, all of which are currently free. I downloaded them all.
Yes, wearing the Gear VR on your head will inspire taunts from friends, curious looks, maybe mockery. But when I let those same people actually try it on for a while, they ended up quieting down.
Lenses for your phone
Google Cardboard, the do-it-yourself VR kit for phones, showed how the magic behind VR isn't really contained in the headset so much as the software. That's true -- the Gear VR feels mostly like a fancy pair of goggles for the Note. It's basically a USB-connected mouse with lenses: it adds the built-in touchpad, back button, volume controls (all on the side of the headset), and of course the lenses. Multiple motion-sensitive head controls: accelerometer, gyrometer and geomagnetic (compass) sensors are on board, along with a facial proximity sensor. That's how you interact with the Gear VR: no haptic gloves, no arm-scanning cameras. Not yet, at least. You can also pair a Bluetooth controller for some games (Samsung makes a gamepad, or you can use another that's Android-compatible.)
The Note 4 was one of the best phablets of 2014, and it provides a good foundation for the Gear. The phone's 2,560x1,440-pixel, 5.7-inch OLED display, a fantastically pixel-dense screen, ends up feeling more like a minimal baseline when blown up across a magnified 96-degree field of view and split across two separate eyes.
The Snapdragon 805 processor feels more than capable for showing panoramic videos, 3D virtual tours, and playing a variety of full 3D VR games, but the physical screen resolution limitations give the Gear VR a bit of a "screen door" effect where you can see the pixels, like in previous Oculus and Project Morpheus headsets. Videos get a bit low-res, but the immersion of the whole experience ends up compensating and making it feel better than you think...especially for 3D graphics.
A dabbling of apps
There aren't a ton of apps for the Gear VR, but it's a better launch assortment than you might expect. There are currently 23 apps/games/demos. Three of them -- Oculus Cinema, Oculus 360 Photo and Oculus 360 Video -- are actually viewers for pre-existing content, and come with dozens of panoramic photos, plus a handful of video clips and trailers.
Among the best experiences so far:
Oculus Cinema: A virtual movie theater where movie trailers and even self-loaded videos can be seen. What's amazing here is the theater itself: you can pick a giant cinema, a screening room, or even the surface of the Moon. The expansive theater, and its seats illuminated by the movie screen, feels so real that it seems like it could be a movie theater replacement in the near future...if the actual video resolution seen in that virtual theater ever ends up approaching the "retina quality" of existing phones, tablets and TVs.
theBluVR: A virtual ocean adventure, full of animated whales, sharks, ice floes and schools of fish. I let my kids and my nephew and niece try this, and they screamed with joy, saying they felt like they were really in the ocean.
Cirque du Soleil's "Zarkana" and "Strangers: A Moment with Patrick Watson": Two brief 3D VR videos, both showing how real experiences could create a sensation of telepresence. One's a theatrical performance that makes you feel like you're on stage with a circus troupe; the other's a quiet piano recital in Patrick Watson's apartment studio. You can look around and explore, watch his dog, and just take in the music like a private concert.
Ikarus and Minotaur Rescue VR Lite: Two of many free games and demos you can play. Ikarus is like a platform-puzzle game suspended in space in front of you: Minotaur Rescue is like a giant game of Asteroids suspended on a multistory building extending above and below your feet.
I could go on and on trying to explain what VR is like in words, but it doesn't do it justice. Know that everyone from my mom, to my brother-in-law and sister, to jaded, veteran tech reviewers like colleagues David Katzmaier and John Falcone came away impressed. It's not easy to impress everyone. It's hard to wow people. This VR kit does that. Something about how Oculus and Samsung enabled the headset to seamlessly follow panoramic photos, 3D rooms, or anything else feels like magic, especially when worn out in public on a park bench. Which you can do. In case you're afraid someone will mock you or mug you (always a possibility), there's even a clever camera pass-through mode that lets you see out of the Note 4's camera for a bizarre but helpful look around without taking off the goggles.
The beginning of telepresence
Samsung has a forthcoming 360-degree camera for recording panoramic video, specifically for VR headsets like the Gear VR. The panoramic videos included with this Gear VR kit show what could be done, and what will come in the future. Imagine sports, theater, being on Mars or under the ocean. It's not clear how or when live immersive feeds could start happening, but these headsets are the start of making you feel like you're somewhere else.
Taking them off after half an hour or so, I felt bleary-eyed. The world around me seemed smaller, but crisper. On my train back home to New Jersey, I wondered what this would seem like under an Oculus headset.
Immersion: Largely fluid, sometimes dizzying
Using the Gear VR is a largely nausea-free experience, which is impressive: there's not much lag in the display, and people who used it -- even my mom -- didn't have any problems. But I did have a few moments of severe vertigo. Touring the solar system in the expansive demo Titans of Space, and playing an atmospheric horror game called Dreadhalls with a paired Bluetooth controller made me feel incredibly dizzy. Maybe it was all the running down catacomb hallways and looking around in all directions. The Gear VR lacks offboard head-positioning cameras like Project Morpheus and the larger PC Oculus Rift, which means you can't duck and peer down at things. That sometimes creates a disconnect if you move your head too much in a realistic space.
An amazing hint of what's to come
The Gear VR emphasizes videos and "experiences" more than games, but half the currently available apps are games, and they play much better than I expected. As an out-of-the-gate mobile VR experience -- even with an admittedly paltry initial content roster -- the Gear VR is a bigger success than I had originally expected.
It often amounts to little more than a novelty, or a demo reel of mobile VR. It's finely tuned compared to other alternatives. After experiencing all that it has to offer, there's a good chance the Gear VR could end up sitting on a shelf: it's more of a ride than a full-fledged do-it-all platform. Yet even as a novelty, it's a really amazing experience.
There is going to be more VR in 2015, from tons of companies: Oculus, Sony, Google and others. Samsung might even create a version of the Gear VR for upcoming Galaxy phones, too. (This model, according to Samsung, is only designed for the dimensions of a Note 4.) Expect future inputs like hand-scanning tech, dedicated controllers, and -- the big one -- more content optimized for the virtual space. The Gear VR is just one step.
I can't wait to go back in.