Samsung's take on virtual reality couples a Galaxy Note 4 with Oculus Rift technology.
Samsung's mobile-focused take on virtual reality is almost here. The Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition will reach the US in December, pairing Oculus technology with the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4 to bring "a fully immersive virtual reality experience" to a head near you. Presumably yours. It will be available for $199, or bundled with an as-yet-unspecified Bluetooth controller for $249.
This isn't quite the same experience as the Oculus Rift or Sony's Project Morpheus . Both of those devices pack their own displays, and will be tethered to a larger platform for all of their VR content -- a PC, or the PlayStation 4 in Sony's case. In that regard, Samsung's Gear VR seems quite a bit more flexible: just slip in the Galaxy Note 4 and it'll pull double duty, serving up VR content and working as the display.
But this is ostensibly a step up from Google Cardboard. While that scrappy "device" offered a VR-experience with any Android phone you own, it was ultimately just a cardboard box with some lenses slotted in. The Gear VR Innovator goes a bit further, offering gyro- and accelerometer-based motion controls, proximity sensors, and touchpad controls. The Galaxy Note 4's 2,560x1,440-pixel display is arguably a step up from the 1,920x1,080-pixel display on the Oculus Rift DK2. But both the Oculus and Project Morpheus offer camera-tracked positional accuracy -- the Gear VR's head tracking seems " limited to tilting and turning ."
The reliance on an Android smartphone -- and the Galaxy Note 4, specifically -- is a bit worrying. We liked the phone well enough in our review , but Sony's Project Morpheus has the full weight of the PlayStation 4 behind it, while the Oculus Rift will pair with PCs running Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux. Samsung claims that existing Oculus games "might be relatively easy to port over," but expecting developers to create software for such a specific platform is likely to prove a daunting task. And as impressive as the Note 4 may be, it simply can't match up to the sort of horsepower you can expect to eke out of a gaming PC, or even a gaming console. There are a few titles kicking about that Samsung hopes will show of Gear VR's potential, including partnerships with Vevo for music videos, a Cirque du Soleil performance and a VR-version of Temple Run .
Concerns aside, this remains an exciting step forward for the world of consumer-friendly virtual reality. A portable VR-experience could prove to be a good way to share virtual reality with those of us who aren't convinced. It could also be an amazing way to spend a cross-country flight, while simultaneously confusing anyone in your row; I call that a win-win.
Editors' note (7:32 p.m. PT): Updated with pricing information.