After 20 years of promise, virtual reality headsets are finally here. But the market for VR has split down a key line: price.
While spending nearly $1,200 on an HTC Vive and an equal amount on a gaming PC to pair with it is beyond what many consumers deem affordable, Samsung has stepped in with the best low-cost alternative out there.
The Gear VR is designed to work with existing Samsung smartphones, eliminating both the need for a PC and the immersion-breaking cord that can yank users back into reality. While the headset takes a page from Google’s cardboard competitor, it’s by far a better experience for anyone interested in taking a peek at where this technology is going to be in five years.
Strapping a half-pound piece of plastic to your noggin isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience for long-form content, but Samsung has managed to ensure discomfort doesn’t take you out of the immersive experience.
In addition to a horizontal headband that wraps around the back, a support band across the top of your head makes it possible to use the device for an extended period of time.
The only downside is the inevitable indentation on your face that outlines where the Gear VR has rested. So, with that in mind, my advice is you shouldn’t treat the headset like swim goggles. You don’t need an air-tight seal around your face.
What separates the Gear VR from its low-cost competitors is the built-in controller.
While some headsets require a gaming console style controller, Samsung has opted for a four-way touch-sensitive pad on the right side of the headset. For example, swipe forward to accelerate your VR space ship, or tap to select an option.
And the front face of the VR device is removable to take advantage of augmented reality. Using your Samsung’s smartphone camera, app developers can deposit virtual characters in a real world setting. The shield for the smartphone easily pops on and off.
EASE OF SETUP
Setting up the Gear VR is a breeze. When inserted into the headset, the smartphone automatically launches the Home app developed by Facebook’s Oculus – a competitor in the high-end VR space but a partner at the low-end level.
Don’t have Home installed? You’ll be prompted to download it. You’re best advised to create an account with Oculus to enable in-headset purchases of games and other apps.
No matter how high quality Samsung’s smartphone screens are at arms-length, it suffers from degradation when you place it in the headset an inch from your face.
It’s called the “screen door effect,” where you can see the black spaces between each pixel, giving off the impression you’re looking at the world through the front door of a Kansas farmhouse in the 1930s.
Fortunately, the power of the processors in Samsung devices today ensures smooth head tracking – critical to the sense of immersion VR requires to be successful. You’ll quickly forget all about the screen door effect as you get swept up in a space shooter game or explore a museum.
IS IT A VR GAME CHANGER?
If VR is going to be a consumer-grade success, first impressions count. For most people, low-end VR options will be their primary introduction to virtual reality.
Compared to the Google Cardboard with its flimsy construction and the need to hold it up to your face, or the Zeiss One for iPhone which doesn’t include a controller, Samsung delivers with the Gear VR more than any other entry-level headset I’ve tried.
Watch more videos from our special series on virtual reality:
- HTC Vive review: Why this $1,149 device is the virtual reality leader
- Oculus Rift: Unboxing the first-mover in virtual reality headsets
- Samsung Gear VR: Unboxing a low-cost virtual reality option
- Zeiss VR One: Unboxing the headset built for both iPhone and Android
- HTC Vive hands-on: First impressions with the 'Cadillac' of VR tech