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Living with Samsung Gear VR: A Little Something for Everyone

Living with Samsung Gear VR: A Little Something for Everyone

By David Cardinal

Don’t mistake Samsung’s Gear VR for a high-end gaming device. It’s not. Instead, it offers some compelling, if brief, virtual-reality experiences for techies and non-techies alike. Even those who are not impressed by the latest first-person shooter, intriguing VR experiences including Disneyland, Nepal, and the Blue Angels are likely to prove compelling.

The hardest part of getting the non-technical folks in your household (if you have any) excited about the Gear VR will be explaining to them how they get it to work without being able to see what they’re seeing. In my case, after doing my best to tee-up the “It’s a Small World” Disney experience before handing the Gear VR off, I was chagrined that the first thing it displayed was a warning about overheating. But eventually, the Gear VR delivered and my family was hooked.

The Gear VR experience

Up front, I want to make it clear that the Gear VR is not a classically great VR experience — although it is powered using Oculus software. Images are somewhat grainy — mostly because you are staring at your phone screen from a couple inches away, through lenses that are essentially magnifying glasses — and there can be some lag in fast-movingapplications.

But the Gear VR is not a $2,000 Oculus dev kit, or even a $600 Oculus Rift attached to a high-end PC. It is a $100 headset coupled with a phone you already own (and it’s definitely not worth buying a new Samsung phone to run it!). Judged by that standard, it is pretty darn cool. For many it will be the first way they experience VR, and perhaps the only way for quite a while.

Applications and videos are hit or miss

There are a growing number of applications, and even more videos, for the Gear VR. It seems like the more impressive they are, the more they crash. Or at least, that has been my experience. JauntVR provides some amazing 360-degree experiences, but frequently caused the device to hang, overheat, or go black. I’m sure that will improve with time, or with more expensive devices like the Oculus Rift, but it can be very frustrating in the meantime.

To understand what’s possible on the Gear VR, we need to cover what it can and can’t do. It performs head tracking using the sensors on your phone (for that matter, essentially everything it does uses your phone’s electronics). With my Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, the head tracking was pretty impressive, responding quickly in applications that didn’t add their own lag.

However, the Gear VR doesn’t have any positional tracking, so moving around in a VR scene doesn’t actually move you around. If you’re sitting in a fixed location, that’s probably fine, as you can’t move anyway. Instead, there is a touch-sensitive area on the right side of the goggles that you swipe in a direction to either navigate menus or move around. It is not the simplest system to use, and reminds me of the awkward swipe interface on Google Glass. But if you can develop a good sense of where to place your finger, it is usable. More serious gamers will want to add a Bluetooth-connected gaming controller to use.


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