Samsung could give virtual reality the kick in the pants it needs

While Oculus has been the pioneer in virtual reality, Samsung's Gear VR, which uses Oculus software, could bring VR to the masses.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read

Sarah Tew

Samsung Electronics is poised to jump-start Oculus's virtual reality ambitions.

While Oculus, which was purchased by Facebook for $2 billion in July, has built up a following for its VR technology, the one thing it doesn't yet have is a large base of users. To really understand virtual reality, developers say, you have to experience it. But one emerging dilemma that could slow adoption is its cost: In addition to a dedicated computer, curious enthusiasts have had to plunk down $350 for virtual reality goggles from Oculus VR.

Now, thanks to a partnership between handset giant Samsung and Oculus that was announced Wednesday, the smartphone in people's hands can go on their face too. Samsung's take on virtual reality is the Gear VR , a headset using Oculus software and equipped with a slot for the Galaxy Note 4 , which acts as the brains and display for the virtual reality experience. The effort makes it easier for users to experience virtual reality for the first time without much added expense.

"The primary expense is something you already paid for: Your mobile phone," said Richard Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG. The resulting uptick in usage of virtual reality technology will likely be faster than many companies companies expect. "This is all becoming reality at a pace nobody expected outside the tech community expected six months ago."

Samsung isn't yet talking about the Gear VR's price, but the company said it would be available in the fall. It will also be sold at stores operated by mobile phone carriers, increasing exposure and marketing for the new technology.

The Gear VR is a deceptively simple visor that holds a Samsung smartphone in front of a user's eyes. But hidden inside are an amalgam of sensors that can tell when a user is moving their head. It also has a touchpad on its side to allow them to select a function in an app or tell a character in a game to shoot something. Users will be able to watch a live concert, experience virtual simulations of a beach in Hawaii, or fly above the New York City skyline.

While Samsung is no stranger to partnering with companies who have appealing technology to help make its products more attractive, it's the first large partnership for Oculus. The company, founded in 2012 by Palmer Luckey, drew attention of the video game industry by promising high-quality virtual reality gaming experiences. Even before it officially unveiled the "Rift" headset, industry veterans were singing its praises.

In March, social networking giant Facebook agreed to buy the company for $2 billion Oculus said Facebook's financial backing would allow it to invest in making better quality hardware. Facebook also told Oculus it could run a break-even business allowing it to sell headsets close to the cost of making them.

While the Rift headset from Oculus will be able to rely on the horsepower of a separate computer to create sophisticated images for video games and other content, smartphones won't be able to keep up at first. As a result, the device Samsung is releasing isn't focused as much on video games, but rather on scenic travel videos or taped concerts. The Korean conglomerate said that it was working with various partners in areas such as entertainment and travel to create more VR experiences.

It took the Galaxy Note 4's sharper display and its newer processor to power the visuals, Samsung says, ruling out support for its older devices.

Oculus said it worked closely with Samsung, building specialized software meant to eke as much performance as it can out of the new smartphone and ensure a high quality imagery that otherwise wouldn't be possible.

"It's a hard problem to do well," said John Carmack, Oculus's chief technology officer, during the announcement. "This is really a landmark first step."

Many prototype smartphone virtual reality headsets shown so far aren't as well made as Samsung's device, with less accurate movement on screen when users move their heads, lower quality images and smaller areas of viewing.

"If it's not executed properly, I think these mobile experiences have the capacity to damage VR as a movement before it has time to get started," said Denny Unger, president of virtual reality game maker CloudHead Games. Samsung's choice to partner with Oculus to ensure those higher quality visuals will likely lead to better experiences, he added.

Whether that's enough to drive consumers to try Oculus's mainstream headset, or even just to get enough people using VR to attract a wider swath of developers, is still unclear.

Amir Rubin, head of motion control technology firm Sixense Entertainment, said making virtual reality technology available to so many users for a relatively low cost will solve one of the most vexing struggles new platforms face: Having enough customers to convince game and other content makers to develop for the device. He estimates Samsung could sell as many as three million Gear VR devices before the end of this year, and reach as many as 20 million sold next year, cementing virtual reality as a mass market phenomenon.

"This is the solution for the chicken and egg," he said.

Oculus and Samsung certainly hope so.