Samsung Gear VR: Virtual Reality in your living room

I’m standing in a shark cage, steel bars inches from my face. Bubbles rise to the surface of the crystal-clear water. I turn my head 360 degrees and see nothing but ocean and the rising bubbles. It’s a serene scene.

After a few moments, there’s movement in the distance. A dark shape slowly moves towards the cage. Then another.  I can’t make them out at first they become clear soon enough. They’re great white sharks.

For a moment, I actually flinch a little when a shark gets too close to the cage. Welcome to the world of virtual reality thanks to Samsung.

.I’ve used a pair of cardboard VR goggles from the back of a cereal box before (they were pretty useless) but Samsung’s VR headset is my first experience with a modern, affordable VR headset.

20151222_145751The headset looks like a fancy pair of goggles and is quite bulky but it’s solidly built and, surprisingly, fit comfortably on my head. A Samsung phone (in this case an S6) clicks into the front of the unit using two latches, one of which has a connector that fits into the phone’s mini USB port. There’s a scroll wheel that lets you adjust the focus. You plug headphones into the phone’s headset port..

[Update: Someone has asked me how I found the image quality: Whether I found things blurry. Some times it was a little blurry, but I wonder whether part of that was down to my deteriorating eyesight. A professional lifetime of staring at computer screens might be starting to take its toll …]

When you put the headset onto your head the phone’s software and the Oculus operating system kicks in, and this is your first experience of virtual reality. You find yourself in a large, cavernous room/apartment, with a pool at one end and wooden floors below you. I found myself rotating my computer chair so that I could take in everything around me. It’s fascinating (I really recommend if you’re going to use a VR headset, do it seated in a chair that can rotate. It helps with the experience)..

It’s hard to describe what VR is like without seeing it for yourself. You have to experience it for yourself to actually “get it” and see what it’s like. I could rabbit on for hours and hours on how I found it but you have to experience it for yourself to really understand what it’s like.

The view from the front of Gear VR. The phone clips in front of the two lenses.

The view from the front of Gear VR. The phone clips in front of the two lenses.

The Gear VR proved a hit with my family, too, with older members reaching out and trying to touch dinosaurs that weren’t there and  “Oohh” when dolphins swam past them. It showed to me that VR has no barriers and Samsung has made it accessible to the masses.

Perhaps the strangest sensation with the underwater demo is that you can’t see your hands or feet, or any part of your body. It’s quite disorientating not being able to see your limbs as you look around a virtual space but your mind is tricked into thinking you’re actually in the scene strapped to your head.

I was watching an episode of Mad Men using the Netflix apps (yes, you can watch Netflix using the Gear VR) and you’re transported to a chalet in the mountains. Out the window to your left are snowy mountains, To your right are movie posters. There’s a log fire, a plush leather sofa and a wall-mounted TV surrounded by stone columns. It’s sort of holiday cabin I wish I could afford.

Anyway, at one point, my mind started believing what I was seeing and I tried to put something I was holding in my right hand onto the right hand side of the couch. I actually believed I was siting on a couch, watching Netflix.

I demoed some first-person shooters using a supplied bluetooth controller but the technology isn’t quite there yet to create a really immersive experience. My friend Ross, who recently tested out a Samsung Gear VR as well, was able to get a VR version of Quake running. I couldn’t work it out. One thing I noticed was that I couldn’t use the headset for too long or else my eyes started getting sore.

Virtual Reality is in its infancy but if announcements at gaming trade shows is anything to go by VR is the in-tech at the moment: Is it the next 3D?

Here's me wearing the Samsung Gear VR. It's hard to look cool wearing a VR headset, to be honest.

Here’s me wearing the Samsung Gear VR. It’s hard to look cool wearing a VR headset, to be honest.

What Samsung VR headset has done is bring virtual reality to the living room at an affordable price.  The headset unit will set you back $200, which I think is pretty reasonable for the hardware. Of course, you’ll need a 2015 Samsung phone but lots of people have those nowadays.

I haven’t tried a Oculus Rift unit so I can’t compare the two and say whether one’s better than the other but I was impressed with the Gear VR and how immersed I felt in its virtual reality worlds. And at $199, it’s affordable but there’s one caveat: You have to have a 2015 Samsung smart phone to make it work. I don’t so I’d have to buy a Samsung phone as well as the headset so it could get pricey!

I wasn’t sure what I thought about VR until I’d tried out the Samsung Gear VR and now I’m sold. VR still has a way to go to go to make it a truly immersive experience but there’s something about being able to fool your brain into thinking that you’re actually watching a dinosaur waking up or sitting in a shark cage, surrounded by aquatic life.


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