Virtual Reality is going to be big news at this year’s E3, with Oculus Rift and Sony’s Morpheus confirmed to be in attendance as well as likely appearances from Microsoft’s Hololens, HTC and Valve’s Vive and perhaps even Totem. Sadly, as the Oculus Rift pre-E3 conference proved, it’s not easy to sell Virtual Reality on a stage. If you want to try it yourself, you’ve currently got three real options. Google Cardboard is very affordable (£6 or even cheaper if you make it yourself) but uncomfortable and quite limited. The Oculus Rift Developer Kits aren’t very user friendly and need a beefy PC to run them. The third option is the Samsung Gear VR.
The Gear VR requires either a Galaxy Note 4 or a Galaxy S6 to run (there are different models for the two different phones). You buy the headset for around £160 and then slot your phone into the front, where it plugs into the headset and is held in by a solid plastic folding clip. Then you just put it on your head and you’re away. Everything is managed by an Oculus app on your phone (the Gear VR was developed with Oculus) and although the headset has a touchpad, some buttons, a focus adjuster and some sensors, really your phone is doing all of the hard work in producing the image and sensing your movements. Currently it is being sold as something particularly for early adopters and developers and that’s advice to take seriously, there’s not many games or apps and many aren’t all that polished. That being said it’s possibly the most convincing access point to VR that you can own right now.
The simplicity of the system is a huge bonus. You’re not tethered to a PC, the app has an incredibly simple UI (look at what you want to select and tap the touchpad to select) and focusing seems to work well enough even for people with glasses. Apps are split into Games, apps and experiences. Many of the best programs seem to be simple 360 3d videos like the excellent Cirque de Soleil showcase that puts you into the center of a live performance. For demonstrating VR’s possibilities to the uninitiated, it’s a spectacular entry point and gives you enough of a sense of ‘presence’ with you having to do anything.
The screen on the S6 (the version we have) is incredibly high res but since you’re so close to it you’ll still be able to see individual pixels. Sadly the refresh rate and resolution isn’t quite there yet and is the weakest part of the whole deal, while things can look ‘good enough’, it never looks perfectly clear. Developers also seem to be keen to keep file sizes to a minimum so many of the videos available have very low resolutions themselves, it’s worth seeking out some high res versions to see what the system can really do.
In terms of games it’s currently a mixed bag. There’s plenty of free demos and cheap games but we’ve found we get quite intense motion sickness from anything that involves running around. Sitting down games like tower defense, racing and space based games work much better and our current favourite is VR Karts. It’s a Mario Kart style racer where you can go up against the AI or real opponents online and blast around a handful of fairly simple courses and shoot each other with powerups. You can look all around you, the performance never falters and you can even use the rear view mirrors in a way that feels unbelievably natural. When racing online you can see the characters’ heads moving in sync with the other players so an odd form of speechless communication often begins, like in Journey, where nods and shakes of the head manage to signal so much in between and during races.
We’re incredibly impressed with the Gear VR and with plenty more support promised between now and the launch of the consumer edition of Oculus Rift, it’s simply the best way to get into VR until the big hitters come out over the next year. If you can stomach spending £160 on a bit of a novelty and already have an S6 or a Note 4, we heartily recommend it.