I hold the Gear VR to my face and instantly have a sensation that I’m peering through a porthole into another world – and it’s not just the blurriness at the edges the screen. I’m watching Within’s video of the Millions March, an immersive look at a 60,000 strong protest through the streets of New York, a claustrophobic perspective of the rally from the perspective of someone in the thick of the crowd. That this is being created from a mobile phone, some headphones and a bit of plastic is, to be honest, still a little bit incredible, even for someone who uses VR regularly.
The Gear VR is not trying to become the latest and greatest when it comes to VR. Its resolution is mediocre, but this isn’t particularly noticeable once you’ve been using it for a few minutes. It’s powered by a Samsung smartphone – different handsets require different versions of the headset – which means that you’re not trailing around an endless mess of wires when you use it.
It is surprisingly lightweight for a VR unit, which means you can hold it in your hands like Google Cardboard or strap it to your head like an HTC Vive without problems, as the main means of navigation is a touchpad and buttons on the side of the headset. The straps were easy to put on and adjust, although it was still a discomfortingly close fit while wearing glasses – after an initial test to see if it was possible I swapped over to wearing contact lenses for a more comfortable experience.
The Gear is surprisingly easy to use, considering its limited processing power. It is built to work with co-developer Oculus’ smartphone app, which gives it the same smooth navigation and store set-up you would expect from the Rift. There is a sizeable library of content available, mostly on the visual experiences side. This plays to the headset’s strengths as, while it is a great device for watching short five minute documentaries, the padding wasn’t sufficient for prolonged use and the bridge of my nose soon began to feel sore from the pressure.
Connecting up a Bluetooth gaming controller was possible, yet also a little irritating considering the relatively simple means of setting up everything else related to the device. For gaming it’s a must, but for most of the visual experiences, the headset control is more than adequate.
There are a few drawbacks that might discourage some potential users – particularly gamers – from investing in a Samsung Gear VR. Prolonged use (half an hour or more) is liable to inspire a faint sense of nausea; that is, if the phone doesn’t overheat first – after 25 minutes I had to turn it off and wait for it to cool down before I could use it in VR mode again. It is also a significant drain on battery life, so your phone will probably need to be put on charge once you’ve finished using the Gear.
All told, the Samsung Gear is a great headset for short experiences and, for those who a flagship Samsung phone, it’s a great entry point to VR without the costs involved in buying a specialist gaming device. If you’re planning on mostly using VR to watch rather than play, then this is about the best of the second tier headsets. However, if you’re an iPhone user rather than an Android aficionado, then it might be a stretch to buy a new phone solely for use in this VR headset.
Regular phone releases means that this line of headsets will be regularly updated (the latest version is solid black and features an extra button to improve navigation), so what is already a strong entrant into the VR stable is likely to keep getting better and better.