Samsung's virtual-reality kit, Gear VR, finally launches

Teased in September, the Gear VR will be sold on Samsung's and AT&T's websites. But Samsung is more concerned with building awareness than unit sales.

The Gear VR launches today. Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung is making a big jump into virtual reality, and it hopes early adopters will follow along.

The company's first virtual-reality headgear, the Gear VR Innovator Edition, was made available on Monday through AT&T's and Samsung's websites for $199, but only in the US. It launched with 17 apps, including a few from partner Oculus, which Samsung worked with on the product, and a few other games.

Gear VR represents Samsung's attempt to raise awareness and interest in virtual-reality technology, a burgeoning area pioneered by Oculus. The headset requires a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone to act as the display and brains, while developer kits created by Oculus utilize a PC. The Gear VR's "Innovator Edition" moniker, like Google Glass' "Explorer Edition," suggests limited volumes as Samsung essentially runs a beta test with willing early adopters.

"Our metric for success is for people to like our product, engage with it and build up daily habits," said Nick DiCarlo, vice president of immersive products and virtual reality for Samsung. "It's not selling lots and lots of units."

DiCarlo declined to say how many Gear VR units Samsung expects to sell.

With Samsung's once-mighty smartphone business starting to dent its profits, and the tablet market cooling, the company is looking elsewhere for an injection of growth. Virtual reality is an area that has garnered excitement, even if there is no clear indication of consumer interest. In July, Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion. Sony is pushing into VR with its Project Morpheus headset, intended to be an extension to its PlayStation 4 video game console.

Samsung wants to get in on the ground floor, coming out with the Gear VR before Oculus itself comes out with its own product. And it appears Samsung is willing to play the long game on this bet.

"We're in this for the long haul and it's about getting a lot of lessons learned fast so we can make something that can scale in the future," DiCarlo said.

The user base will likely be limited to start. The "Innovator Edition" tagline suggests the Gear VR will appeal to early VR enthusiasts, developers or people in the industry interested in creating video in that format.

DiCarlo wouldn't say when he thought the Gear VR or virtual-reality technology would hit the mainstream. "I'm not in a rush," he said.

The Gear VR is being shown around at select malls across the country, as well as hit festivals and confabs like the Consumer Electronics Show, DiCarlo said.

Games include Anshar Wars, a multiplayer space shooter, and theBlu, an exploration of undersea life, Samsung said.

DiCarlo hinted at broader compatibility with future Samsung devices. He said that the Galaxy Note 4 represented the baseline equipment required for the virtual reality to work, specifically its screen density and processing power. Future devices, presumably running on superior specifications, would work.

"We're treating the Note 4 as the minimum, and we'll be building from there," he said.