Will Samsung’s Gear VR become the first virtual reality device to take the market by storm?
Virtual reality has been dubbed “the next big thing” for a while but no gadget has yet hit the mainstream.
Samsung hopes to create the first success story in this field with its Gear VR headset, which avoids the twin traps of being either too complicated or performing too poorly, and retails in Hong Kong for US$115.
But the Gear VR is no Lone Ranger. It needs a companion. In this case, it must be hooked up to a Samsung smartphone to work properly. This effectively lends the device a screen and motion sensor. Only four high-end handsets are supported - the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ and Note5 - so make sure you either have one of these, or are planning to buy one. They were all released this year.
Generally, the device is well-designed, with directional and return buttons positioned on the right for easier control.
The distance between the screen and your eyes on the goggle-like gadget can also be adjusted, and the enclosure offers enough room to keep your specs on - great for those suffering from myopia.
READ MORE: ‘The dawn of the virtual reality era’: Oculus Rift headset heralds brave new world of entertainment
Standalone, the goggles weigh 318 grammes. A smartphone can add another 50 per cent, making the headband essential.
The experience is nothing if not immersive. It offers wide viewing angles and smooth motion. You can hardly see the edge of the image and there are no obvious time delays on the go.
The biggest problem is content. More is sorely needed, even though Samsung claims to have a library of 150 games and apps for Hong Kong alone.
Most of these are simple arcade games, which are more easily controlled by head movements. However, as the Gear VR is compatible with a Bluetooth game controller, Samsung has left room for more sophisticated games in the future.
For now, it seems to work best when watching movies and video clips. Certain apps can transform it into a virtual cinema on the bridge of your nose. Moreover, US video-streaming site Netflix plans to operate in Hong Kong next year, and its app is great fun (check it out).
Sliding a phone inside the headset makes the Gear VR truly wireless, but only for a short period as it relies entirely on the phone battery. This reporter found that when watching a movie powered by a Samsung S6, the battery drained at a rate of 1 per cent a minute.
Fortunately, there is a micro-USB port to facilitate charging.
READ MORE: Hong Kong’s 360-degree videomaking pioneers, and how the virtual-reality technology works
Samsung did not attach much pomp and ceremony to the launch in Hong Kong. It was rolled out together with its Gear S2 smart watch at a pop-up showroom in the city’s busy Causeway Bay.
“Samsung is still making plans for the Gear VR,” said Henny Ngan, product manager for Samsung’s telecom business in the city.
“Right now, we just want more people to experience virtual reality.”
Before the Gear VR came along, there were basically two kinds of virtual reality devices either on or soon destined to hit the market.
Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive stand at the expensive, high-performing end of the spectrum, but both are still months away from being released. One developer’s version of the Rift can be found online for around US$350.
READ MORE: Shortcut to Shangri-La: Virtual reality headsets offer 360-degree tours of cities and hotel group’s properties from Tibet to Hong Kong
Then there is Google Cardboard, which can cost as little as US$4, and products of that calibre and ilk.
As such, the Gear VR slots into a nice little niche. It is affordable and provides a more than satisfactory experience. If you own one of Samsung’s newer smartphones, its a worthwhile purchase - if only to watch a movie in the world’s smallest (virtual) cinema.