Throughout my life, the screen has made a steady march towards my face.
In my early childhood I squinted at a tiny TV box across the living room. Get within 10ft and my mother would threaten me with the square eyes curse. The family Amstrad CPC464 computer monitor brought the screen into closer view and then flat HDTV screens appeared and filled up my entire vision.
It didn’t stop there. Realising it couldn’t get much closer, the television went all 3D and reached out at me into the living room. Sadly most people weren’t massively amused and TV is currently licking its wounds and hoping 4K will make us come back for another look.
The screen however continues its march, now sitting right next to my eyeballs. Virtual reality (VR) is here to try the opposite of 3D and suck me directly into the screen, putting me right into the center of the action.
So what is VR all about? Well, basically it involves donning a headset containing small screens and peripherals that transport you into a computer generated environment that immerses you and has at least some of your senses convinced that you’re actually there. For some, it’s a new WOW experience in a world of ever more familiar gadgets, but for others it’s just blurry and vomit inducing. More on that in a bit.
Introducing the Samsung Gear VR Headset
This is the Samsung Gear VR. The thing that amazes me about it initially is that strapping a mobile phone to your face can give you any sort of VR experience at all. But that’s what this chunk of plastic does.
In terms of cost, it’s both cheap and expensive, depending on what mobile phone you already have. At £80, I can tell you without reading any further that it’s worth it for a taste of the current VR hype, but it’s only £80 if you have the right phone in your pocket. The Gear VR will only work with a limited range of Samsung phones, including the S6 and S7 models.
Those are great phones and with the S6 now having been around a while, you can get a VR setup here AND a great phone for far less than the cost of buying the high end VR kit like Oculus Rift (£600 + £1500 worth of computer).
At first glance £80 doesn’t appear to buy you a whole lot. The Gear VR is a very plasticy affair, with most of the clever stuff being handled by your phone. Velcro-straps and a foam-covered rubber grip keep the Gear VR held against your face. It’s moderately comfortable, but it’s not massively adjustable and if the size of your head isn’t an exact match, it may feel like putting on an ill-fitting ski mask.
Once on, an analogue dial on the top lets you focus the lenses, binocular-style, so you can get a sharp picture on the image provided by your phone on the other side of the unit.
Setting Up the Samsung Gear VR
Attaching and detaching the phone is quick and easy (don’t forget to unlock it first). It docks into a USB connector and that will automatically launch the Oculus app, which you’ll need to have installed ahead of play. To control moving around menus or using the apps and games, a touch-sensitive direction pad is available on the right hand side, along with a back button, or you can use a bluetooth gamepad. Finally there are volume controls and a usb socket to keep you connected to power if you need.
First impressions are a mixed bag, depending on your expectations. People of a gadget persuasion tend to start with disappointment. Your shiny Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge’s screen might look incredible in your hand, but it’s not quite the same level of sharpness from a couple of centimetres away and the lenses don’t help, adding blur if you’ve not got your eyeballs dead-centre in front of them.
However, my non-geek friends were more impressed from the off. Fire up some 360-degree photographs and have them look around a beautiful cityscape or mountain range and the speed at which they’re transported there and immersed is enough to get a wow out of a 7 year old, or a 70 year old. If you're short of photos, there's a VR version of Google Street View which can take you all over the world. It's a great new way to try this amazing service.
Start to show people some games and videos and geek or not, the possibilities of VR reveal themselves to everyone. What the Gear VR does very well is keep up with your head as you look around. There is no lag, whether you’re looking at static photos, or shooting through space in a graphically impressive shoot-em-up, you’ll get drawn in enough to feel immersed.
So what can you actually do with a VR headset? Well, first and most obviously, there are the games. Samsung’s partnership with Oculus seems to have helped keep the unit supported and there are a good selection of games in the app-store with two to three more seeming to appear each week.
Gaming on the Samsung Gear VR
My favourite has to be Dead Secret. You play an investigative journalist for a small town US newspaper determined to solve a murder case and make a name for herself. The beginning of the game sees you at an empty wooden house in the middle of nowhere, ready to root through the possessions of the deceased to try and piece together the story of what happened.
The 3D graphics are great and you really feel like you’re there, opening up drawers, peering into rooms and solving puzzles to open up new areas of the house. The actual gameplay is reminiscent of those point-and-click adventures that enjoyed their heyday in the 1990’s. It works brilliantly in VR and the scary moments are genuinely scary! There was one day where I spent a couple of hours playing and a moment that made me jump saw me jump again when I whipped the headset off to find I was sitting in a pitch-black living room. It had gotten dark outside whilst I was immersed and I hadn’t noticed!
I play with the lights on now.
The second game I downloaded was ‘VR Karts Sprint’. A kart racing game with colourful cartoon graphics and a lot of ideas lifted from classics like Super Mario Kart, it’s edging towards mediocre, but good enough in these early days of VR. What it did do though was bring to mind one of the big problems facing VR. You’re not actually travelling that fast in these karts and a 3 lap race lasts less than 5mins, but in that time I had very definite symptoms of motion sickness.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Nausea can really be a dealbreaker for VR and I’m someone who begins to get seasick before boats have even left the harbour, so I was a bit worried I’d be able to enjoy any games at all. Dead Secret was no problem, but you’re not moving around in the game all the time, which gives your senses a break. My brain was much less convinced about karting though when several of my senses were reporting that I was sitting in an armchair and not flying around a track firing missiles at my competitors.
The nausea is triggered because when the brain starts to get mixed signals from your senses, it suspects you’ve been poisoned, so wants to purge to minimise exposure. People have different sensitivities to it, but it’s essential that good game design is maintained, otherwise I can see people heading back to reality pretty damned sharpish.
For me, I’m tempted to stick to slower, but no less enjoyable games like the gorgeous Land’s End. Equally, I have enjoyed a few other action games like ‘Jump’ which sees you jumping between huge 3D skyscrapers and so long as I keep sessions relatively short, I feel fine.
Watching Video on the Samsung Gear VR
Games aren’t the only form of entertainment that VR could shake up though and it’s widely written that filmmakers are excited to experiment with 360 degree video to see what new elements it can bring to storytelling. If it sounds gimmicky, there is already evidence that the extra level of immersion has induced greater levels of empathy in viewers, so give this consideration before you jump into any of the harder hitting documentaries that are already available. For a taster, I suggest you stick to something a little lighter and watch the 5min trailer for ‘Invasion!’ from the makers of Madagascar. It’s great fun and the computer generated graphics suit the visual limitations of the Gear VR well. Other videos are impressive for being able to look around, but the resolution can be frustratingly low and it will often stutter when streamed over even the fastest home broadband connection. This will definitely improve with time and it’s clear that the potential is enormous.
Whilst we’re waiting for 360 degree video to mature, classic 2D video can also be interesting in a VR world. Ever wish you had a massive TV screen? Or your own private cinema? Well, incredibly a phone strapped to your face can give this to you. Netflix subscribers can jump straight in with an official VR app putting you in a nice log cabin with a massive telly to watch your Netflix binges from a comfy looking red sofa. If you’ve got your own videos, you can drop them into Oculus Cinema and watch them in one of four viewing experiences. You have a classic huge cinema, a private home cinema, a hilarious ‘Ant’ cinema or you can even watch movies on the moon! The initial awe as a film starts and you really believe you’re in front of a 100ft screen does dampen a little as the limitations of the picture quality emerge, but it’s eminently watchable and I love to lie back in bed and watch Netflix without having to crick my neck. I just wish my wife would stop laughing at me.
Social Networking - Meet Your Friends Face to Face!
You may or may not know this but Facebook bought the company Oculus (for their Rift headset) not that long ago. It’s their position that VR is potentially the next space for the social network.
Now they’re playing the long game, as right now, the social aspects of something like the Gear VR are limited. It’s relatively portable, especially compared to other VR formats and all your friends will want a play, which is fun. But it’s a bit of a shame that there is no way to share in the experience whilst your friend is playing. I’d love to see an app that streams the view to another phone, so you can at least share that way.
Looking further ahead, there are already some social network apps, like VTime and Oculus Social where you can meet up and chat with others in VR cyberspace. I’ve not dived in yet, but the potential for remote presence is there and also, watching the 360 degree video of The Verge interviewing Michelle Obama was very cool. Her charisma and charm comes through even more so than watching in more detached fashion on television.
VR Today and Tomorrow
It’s clear to me that the potential of VR is enormous. It can bring us closer to experiences we would otherwise get no where near, introduce new ways of telling stories and playing games and at the very worst, give us a little escape where there is no other way to get out of the house. The Samsung Gear VR is a little taster of all that and amazingly capable, given what it is. It’s cheap if you have the phone already and definitely a deal sweetener for those tempted by a Samsung Flagship. Yes, the resolution could do with a bump and yes, some of the more exciting games might cost you the contents of your stomach, but whilst I will stop just short of urging you to go straight out and buy one, I do urge you to go straight out and try one. VR is where the excitement is in technology right now and I shall be following its journey avidly.