There is a big drawback here, and that is that the Gear VR only works with recent Samsung smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 edge, Note5, and S6 edge+. All four smartphones have AMOLED displays with a 2560 x 1440 resolution, while the Note5 and edge+ are larger, 5.1 to 5.7 inches. All have the same Exynos 7420 chipset. The larger Android smartphones have 4GB of RAM while the smaller have 3GB.
The Gear VR works spectacularly well at creating an immersive environment. Those that have yet to experience Oculus or any current consumer VR will be floored when they first put it on. It’s impressive, and very novel. Even if you aren’t going to buy one, it’s worth a trip to a local Best Buy retail store just to demo. As a bonus, it’s almost as much fun watching others try it for the first time.
What separates the Gear VR from Google Cardboard and other smartphone-based VR viewers is that Samsung’s is outfitted with additional sensors to track head movement, resulting in a more fluid experience. If head and VR view movement is not synched one to one, it’s impossible to discern. Perhaps side-by-side comparisons with a PC-powered Oculus would reveal a slight delay or visually broken stutter from a skipped frame, but on its own, the Gear VR seems as smooth as can be. Also, the Gear VR is entirely wireless, a claim the PC VR headsets won’t be able to make for the foreseeable future.
We tested the Gear VR with both the Note5 and S6 edge+ and noticed no differences. Those that have tried with the S6 and S6 edge claim the phones offer a tighter field of view but crisper imaging due to the smaller screen sizes and higher pixel densities. Little else separates all four Samsung smartphones in terms of VR experience.
About that VR … once the novelty wears off, the limitations become obvious. While the Samsung smartphone displays are dense, individual pixels are easy to spot with the phone so close to the face (perhaps this is what Sony had in mind with its 4K smartphone). The view is also not entirely immersive, as the display cuts off around the edges into a black blur. This can wreak havoc on those susceptible to motion sickness, especially in first-person apps.
Keep in mind, too, that the Gear VR is powered by a smartphone processor and limited just like any other mobile game. Visuals are in line with original Xbox and PS2-era games, which detracts from the immersion. Swimming with great white sharks in an ocean simulator should be nerve wracking, but instead it’s silly due to a blocky beast. Scale also doesn’t translate well. It’s obvious the Apatosaurus in the Jurassic World demo looks big, but it doesn’t feel big. Like lousy CGI, it has no weight. This also messes up puzzles and third person platformers as it’s tough to judge just where an object resides on the Y plane.
In addition, there are no body or hand motion sensors, and this creates an off-putting illusion akin to vertigo. Some games and apps reveal a virtual body when the user looks down, but more often than not there is just space and the ground. Also, first-time users will find it tempting to use their hands, but with no motion or hand sensors, they’ll just look silly futilely waving and grasping at nothing.
One other issue inherent in VR is that it necessitates plenty of open space. Gear VR owners will want a good swivel chair with room to spin to avoid bumping into to anything or anyone. Also, secure your wallet or purse, and be mindful of any pranksters. It’s just too easy to sneak up on someone wearing the headset.
Like we mentioned, you can just pick it up and go. Docking the Samsung smartphone in the Gear VR for the first time initiates the Oculus Live app, which is where all the VR action takes place. Here users can download new content and access the content library. There are also options for calibrating the Gear VR, adjusting the smartphone display brightness, toggling smartphone notifications (our advice: turn them off), and using the neat camera passthrough feature, which is just begging for a Predator or Terminator mode.
The app can also be accessed outside the Gear VR for those that want to peruse and manage content in the non-VR space.
The Gear VR will not work with any of the Google Cardboard VR apps in the Google Play Store, both because they are not calibrated for the Gear VR and because you can’t dock a smartphone without launching Oculus Live.
Most of the games are simple as there is only so much one can do with touchpad swipes and taps. However, some require a Bluetooth gamepad, or at least support one. Gear VR owners would be wise to pick one up. Samsung has its own for $70, but we managed to get it working with a $15 Nyko Playpad.
Still, even the simplest Gear VR apps are intensive and push the system, making the Gear VR a battery drain. In our usage, about 15 minutes of Gear VR time drained the battery 10%. Keep a charger handy.
Games & Content
Gear VR owners will be happy to know there is plenty of content to sample, and much of it free. Paid apps run between $3 and $15, with games edging towards the more expensive end.
Content is broken into four categories: concepts, games, experiences, and apps. Concepts are all free, and are essentially beta demos of games and experiences. Experiences are interactive and immersive apps, and are mostly educational. There are notable titles here, including Titans of Space, where users explore the planets inside a deep-space exploration vessel.
In addition to the video channel, there are also video apps like Oculus Video and Milk VR that feature video for streaming or download, including sports and news clips. Netflix is also on board, and it simulates a big screen while the user sits on a comfy sofa in a modern-style mountain retreat. It’s fun to try, but too tough on the eyes for a full movie-viewing. There’s also a beta web browser that has a similar effect. The mobile web is great on a 5.7-inch display, but not when it’s inches from your face.
Of course, the real draws here are the games, and there are some decent titles that really show off VR’s potential.
Yes, there are many first-person titles; and yes, they can wreak havoc on those susceptible to motion sickness. Temple Run VR is especially notable for its nausea potential, but Dreadhalls is the real standout as it is the most heart-pounding and terrifying game we’ve ever played. The game makers warn in the start screen that it’s an intense title not for the faint of heart, and that warning should be heeded.
Stationary shooters are the dominant category of games as of this writing, and most are hit and miss. The simple gameplay can only take things so far. Of these, EVE Gunjack looks great, and the shooting-range simulator Shooting Showdown 2 provides simple and addictive gameplay.
First-person riddlers like Esper and Esper 2 are worth checking out, as they combine a Portal-like humor with some innovative puzzle solving, and the VR’s education potential is on full display with Cyber Cook Taster, a cooking demo. The brickbreaker clone Proton Pulse is another favorite. It’s one of the more immersive titles with its hypnotic techno soundtrack.
Of all the titles, it’s the third-person hack-and-slash games that are the most complete as of this writing. We found titles like James’s Legacy – The Prologue, Herobound: First Steps, and Shironeko VR Project to be the most engaging, and easiest on the eyes and senses.