First Impressions of the Gear VR

Serendipity

Two weeks ago, my wife and I finally decided to upgrade our cellphones, which we do every three or four years. We don’t skimp on essential electronics we plan to keep for extended periods of time, and so bought ourselves a pair of Samsung Galaxy S6 phones. As you’d expect, they’re really nice phones!

Gear01-Phones

A week ago, at Capclave, one of my fantasy short stories won 2nd place in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s short story contest. The prize for 2nd place was an invitation to Capclave 2015, an invitation to Balticon 2016, and … $100 dollars. Which was awesome, but will also soon become important.

Two days ago, the Samsung Gear VR (basically, a super nice Google Cardboard VR headset designed exclusively for the Samsung Galaxy S6) went on sale on Amazon … for $100 dollars. I already have an Oculus DK2 and know what VR is like, so I’d never have bought a Gear VR otherwise. But the sale, plus the recent short story prize, plus hearing good things about Gear VR initiated an impulse buy.

So, thanks to a once every four years phone upgrade, winning a short story contest, and 50% off on Amazon, I impulse bought a Gear VR and snapped my new phone inside. Here are my first impressions.

VR is Super Clear

VR, both for movies and videogames, is super clear on the Gear VR. It provides a sneak preview of what VR will look like on the final consumer versions of upcoming VR headsets, which is to say, amazing. This additional clarity makes the biggest difference in 3D movies, and I think passive 360 viewing experiences (like safaris and concerts) will be the bread and butter of “casual” VR adopters. The accessible hook.

Gear02-Headset

Even with the lower quality of VR movies available to on Gear VR at launch, flying over a city in a helicopter (and being able to look straight down) is now an awe-inspiring and memorable experience. Also, when gaming, even small UI elements are super crisp and easy to read. Which is great. Finally, there is no stutter, since all VR experiences are designed to fall within the Galaxy S6’s specifications.

Not Being Tethered to a Personal Computer Opens Up New Play Mechanics

When you think of peripherals to make VR more immersive, many come to mind: HOTAS flight sticks and throttles, Sixense motion trackers, steering wheels and pedal sets with force feedback, the Buttkicker. What don’t most people think of when considering VR peripherals? The humble swivel chair.

Gear03-SwivelChair

The game that proved this for me was Anshar Wars. The fact that such a simple game with a single level and perhaps four mechanics blew me away was a testament to smart and simple design. The best game ideas are massively intuitive and immediately fun, and Anshar Wars proves the swivel chair mechanic.

The game is simple. You watch your fighter fly out of your mothership (third person – you’re in a “chase cam” behind your fighter) and then enemy fighters attack your mothership. Your velocity is constant … you are always flying forward. To guide your ship and aim your crosshair, you just … look where you want to go. To put that alien ship in your crosshairs? Look at it. To thread the needle between two asteroids? Look between them. Look up to fly up, down to fly down, and finally, the best part.

To bank 180 and chase the enemy fighter that just blew by you, you swivel your chair around.

In concept, this seems silly. In practice, it’s awesome. For the thirty minutes straight I played Anshar Wars, I must have looked (to the average observer) rather ridiculous. Looking up and down, using measured presses of my feet to rotate my chair left and right at varying speeds. Yet in VR, I was flying in loops. Zooming around asteroids, locking on and firing missiles, and blowing past and then quickly banking around to evaporate enemy fighters. At least until I flew into that asteroid and went boom.

Gear04-AnsharWars

The swivel chair mechanic is something that simply won’t ever work with a “wired” headset (like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Sony Morpheus) because the wire is going to get tangled. Because the Gear VR has NO wires – it’s just strapped to my face – I can spin any direction as far as I want as often as I want and never have any problems. Thus, the humble swivel chair goes from the thing that makes your butt hurt after a long gaming session to an input device as integral to gameplay as a keyboard or controller.

Never would have guessed!

The Features of a “Final” Consumer Device

The Oculus DK2 is a dev kit, not a consumer product, and technically, Samsung claims the Gear VR is not a consumer product either. Yet it already incorporates a number of useful features I feel must be in the final consumer version of the big boy headsets. These include:

Built-in Touchpad

This is one of the best features of the Gear VR. It has a touchpad and “Back” button built into the side of the headset. For my X-Men fans, remember how Cyclops would touch the side of his visor to unleash optic blasts? Well, that’s pretty much what it feels like to interact with the Gear VR, and the touchpad is the controller for many games (sidenote: Someone make a Gear VR game where I’m Cyclops).

Look at Menus to Select Them

I first noticed this mechanic in the excellent Titans of Space, and called it out as the ideal way to navigate menus in VR. Well, Oculus apparently agrees. Every menu button within the Gear VR highlights when you “look” at it (you have a crosshair that shows you exactly where you are looking, in VR, and can look past the crosshair when not using it). Clicking the touchpad when looking at an option selects it.

Pass Through Camera

Simple, but super useful! Without removing the headset, a quick menu selection allows me to activate the camera on my phone. I then see the real world through my phone’s camera, with the video image projected inside the headset. Thus, I can pause my game to grab a drink off my desk, check on what the dog is eating (that she probably shouldn’t be eating) and talk to my wife without removing the headset.

Focus Wheel

This huge win is a wheel on top of the Gear VR, similar to that on top of a pair of binoculars. Scrolling it left or right subtly moves the plastic sheet behind the goggles strapped to your face forward or back to bring your phone’s split screen into focus. In early headsets like the DK2, getting the focus right is troublesome and requires putting the headset on, booting up an app in VR (no “Oculus Home Menu” for the DK2), pulling the headset off, adjusting, and repeating. With the focus wheel, you just don the headset, adjust it like a pair of binoculars, and focus in seconds. Intuitive, efficient and easy.

Wireless VR!

The consumer versions of the Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus (seated experiences) and the HTC Vive (standing experience – possibly) will have massive cables running from each headset to a computer. So, while you can tiptoe around these, you must be careful not to get your cables twisted. The Gear VR is entirely wireless (you wear the computer!) and the feeling of freedom is vastly superior. Swivel chair!

Downsides

Your Phone May Literally Melt

Obviously, there are tradeoffs for wireless VR freedom. First, your phone gets super hot when used for VR. And by super hot, I mean the Oculus app you use for VR literally includes a function that measures the heat level of your phone and, when your phone is approaching its melting point, shuts off what you’re doing. It then displays a prompt along the lines of “Your phone is too hot. Please allow your phone to cool before continuing your VR experience”. You can’t play again until your phone cools down.


Heat tracking and application shutdown is an integral component of Gear VR. It’s actually called out in the instruction manual. This suggests that Oculus and Samsung know a computer in a tiny plastic case running lots of calculations inside another plastic case gets hot, and they can’t fix this. Your phone overheating is inevitable, and occurs after anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour in VR. This will not be a problem with the Rift, Vive, or Morpheus headsets, but is a problem with current generation phones playing games for extended periods or even watching movies. This limits VR playtime.

You Are a Head on a Flagpole

The biggest thing missing from the Gear VR is what the Oculus DK2 does beautifully: moving your head with your body. With the Gear VR (as with the Oculus DK1) you can look up, down, left, right, and so on, but if you straighten, slouch, or lean, your view doesn’t change and your head remains “locked” to default X Y Z coordinates. This ruins VR and gets nauseating very quickly if you don’t force yourself to *not* move while using Gear VR, because what you “see” in VR doesn’t match what your body is doing.

Like any other sort of motion sickness, moving your torso too much or too often and not seeing that reflected in VR can quickly nauseate you to the point of quitting. Most people shouldn’t have a problem if they have a high-backed chair and sit straight against it for the entire time, but this requires discipline. Most people instinctively slouch or shift while sitting, and the Gear VR can’t account for this.

Despite this, games like Anshar Wars play beautifully in the Gear VR because of their clever incorporation of swivel chairs. So long as you press your back to the chair and spin the chair, not your body, you can play intuitively for extended periods with no motion sickness. So there’s that!

Summary

The Gear VR, and other devices like it, feel like the equivalent of a handheld game console. If a powerful computer with an HTC Vive is your PS4, then a Samsung Gear is your PS Vita. Lighter, self-contained, easy to transport, limited by battery, and designed for shorter, snappier experiences on the road. In exchange for giving up computing power and longer play times, you gain portability and ease of use.

In my opinion, that’s a decent tradeoff. I think the best thing about the Gear VR and similar devices will be VR evangelism. The Gear VR is something you can take anywhere, adjust to a new user in seconds, and use to initiate those who’ve never tried VR into the fold. People who use it will “get” VR quickly.

The next generation of VR headsets will be, in my opinion, wireless versions of the Oculus Rift, HTV Vive, or Sony Morpheus, or Gear VR-like devices that track torso movement and don’t threaten to melt during use. If you already have a compatible phone, the Gear VR is a fun supplement to your home VR setup.

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