Review: Samsung Gear VR – immerse yourself in a bold new world of fun

At HK$888 this is the best value for money entry to virtual reality, with a fast frame rate, excellent gaming experience and growing range of apps. You need a Samsung phone or tablet to operate the headset – so if you haven’t got one, go buy one. You won’t want to miss out on the Gear VR

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 February, 2016, 2:18pm

Virtual reality is finally here and it’s in the form of a clunky-looking headset.

While the most talked-about model, the Facebook-owned Oculus (estimated to cost more than HK$10,000 for the whole package of headgear and a PC to run the content) is scheduled to be released in March, a much more affordable alternative is already available.

The Samsung Gear VR, developed in collaboration with Oculus must use one of the South Korean company’s flagship phones – the Galaxy Note 5, S6 Edge +, S6 or S6 Edge – as the screen.

Even if that is not an issue for you, is the headset a big leap forward in the VR evolution or just another gimmick that is going to give you eye strain?

Hardware design

With my Galaxy Note 5 plugged into the headset’s USB port, another catch on the opposite end bites down tight and holds the handset in place.

One immediate worry is all this mechanical pressure could potentially damage the phone’s body (especially its glass back), but on closer inspection nearly every contact point has tiny rubber nubs to prevent dry friction. Automatic calibration kicks in as soon as the headset has been put on.

Features and performance

A proximity sensor tells the Gear VR it is engaged and, using its IMU (inertial measurement unit) sensors such as gyroscope and accelerometer, it is able to tell which way I’m facing and whether I’m standing straight or at an angle, then adjust and display the VR world accordingly.

The tutorial introduces a physical touch pad, back button and volume control on the right-hand side of the headset. The controls are close enough together for easy reach, essential when it’s necessary to learn your way around the headset by touch alone.

The well thought-out touch pad allows for swipes in multiple directions, and tapping to accept, and it has nice contoured grooves for tactile feedback for the fingertips. So while the headset isn’t powered, it draws juice from the phone.

A one-hour session could use as much as 20 per cent of battery life, so the built-in USB charging port at the bottom of the headset is handy.

While it doesn’t have all the fancy positional tracking or motion tracking, the Gear VR gets head tracking dead on.

It’s the absolute minimum in terms of quality that you should settle for. I had a brief go with Google Cardboard apps so you don’t have to. While they get the job done, they’re lacking an essential factor that makes the Gear VR so great – frame rate.

Oculus and Samsung have taken full advantage of the hardware from a handful of top-range phones and optimised the software (API) to the fullest.

A minimum frame rate of 60 per second ensures there is negligible delay between head movement and what’s shown on the display – and it is this that separates the Gear VR from the Google Cardboard. If immersion has a price attached, it’s a price that should be paid at any cost when it comes to VR.

Without it, the entire experience breaks down very quickly and you become detached the moment you enter the virtual world.

Apps

Apps come in all shapes and sizes. There are lots of video promotional experience trailers such as Jurassic World, Star Wars, Avengers and Insurgent. These immerse you into the fictional universe of the films and are fast becoming a new form of advertisement.

Among the promotional videos, Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios is a particular standout – a 10-minute video that shows off what this famous entertainment group is best at. There are plenty other types of video, as well as a media viewer where you can view your own videos – 2D or 3D side-by-side – in different simulated surroundings such as a cinema.

You can also access YouTube’s growing collection of 360-degree videos and have endless fun with them. It’s all very impressive.

There’s a breathtaking guided tour of space (Titans of Space), museum and gallery tours, and VR cooking lessons (Cyber Cook). The quantity and diversity of these apps will surely grow. And the best thing? A significant number of these apps are free.

Gaming

The Gear VR excels in this particular area. It’s where you’ll get your money’s worth. From the basic but excellent defence games (Eve’s Gunjack), where you’re directly controlling the turret with your head, to being trapped inside a room (Sisters) to being scared witless by demonic dolls, to full-on, jetpack-strapped (Omega Agent) nauseating freedom inside a city area. All you need is to pair with a Bluetooth controller (with the phone).

Conclusion

The Gear VR represents the best-value-for-money entry into the world of virtual reality right now.

The headset isn’t without its flaws, though. While the phones powering the experience have a display resolution of 1440 x 2560 (also known as Quad HD), it’s not high enough; the pixel density will remind you of retro comic books.

The Gear VR does offer an immersive experience that is completely untethered. You can stand, walk (if you dare), lie down and be in any room you like. In fact, the best way to enjoy the headset is to sit in a comfortable swivel chair.

For owners of Samsung phones compatible with the Gear VR, getting it is a no-brainer. If you don’t have a compatible Samsung phone, buy one, then buy the Gear VR. It’s worth it.

Samsung Gear VR, HK$888

 

http://www.scmp.com/author/eric-wong/