If you’d asked any virtual reality (VR) enthusiast about mobile VR this time last week, they’d have told you that, while certainly possible, it’s seen as a low-end quick fix while we continue to wait for the consumer version of the Oculus Rift VR head-mounted display (HMD). In the past seven days that assumption has been turned upside down, making mobile VR a much more exciting prospect that it was before.
On Wednesday 3rd September 2014 Samsung unveiled the Gear VR, a new smartphone-based VR HMD with more than a few aces up its sleeve. Yes, the kit uses a smartphone to display VR experiences much like with numerous other HMDs such as the Altergaze and Durovis Dive, but Gear VR is compatible with the new Samsung Galaxy Note 4, a powerful handset with a 5.7-inch screen running at a ‘Quad HD’ 2.5K resolution. That already puts its display ahead of the Oculus Rift second development kit’s (DK2) own 1080p panel.
Then there are the compatible videogames and experiences that were announced in their droves alongside the reveal of the device, including the likes of Oculus VR’s first internally-developed title, VR Quest and Harmonix’s first foray into VR with Harmonix Music VR. Add to that a partnership with Oculus VR itself that has helped fine-tune Gear VR’s head-tracking solution and software development kit (SDK) and you have a kit that, in the words of developers themselves, rivals DK2.
Suddenly mobile VR doesn’t seem like such a throwaway concept, does it?
When Gear VR launches as an Innovator Edition in mid-October 2014 you can be sure than many VR enthusiasts will be eager to snatch one up, even if the combination of a possible £150 GBP HMD on top of the traditionally pricey handset will likely far outweigh that of the consumer version of the Oculus Rift. Both Gear VR and GameFace Labs’ GameFace wireless HMD are the first steps towards what Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey himself has proclaimed as ‘the future’ of VR.
Gear VR’s victorious reveal has quickly positioned it as one of the most high profile HMDs right now, sitting up there with the Oculus Rift itself and Sony Computer Entertainment’s (SCE) Project Morpheus VR HMD. In fact, Samsung’s open, widespread reveal of the device has arguably positioned it ahead of SCE’s effort as the latter continues to dodge questions on compatible videogames and consumer releases. We’ve known about Project Morpheus for just under six months now and Gear VR for just under a week, yet the latter has been far more open.
Think about the potential for upgrades, too. Samsung updates its line-up of handsets on an annual basis, meaning this time next year we could well see a Galaxy Note 5 with an even better screen and more improvements for the VR experience. In this sense, the device is again pulling ahead of Project Morpheus, which will likely be restricted to one model throughout the PlayStation 4’s lifespan.
Of course, the device isn’t quite the answer to the fabled, faultless consumer HMD. Currently the device lacks arguably DK2 and Project Morpheus’ biggest feature, positional tracking. While the head-tracking is reported to be accurate and capable, it doesn’t allow users to move their heads with a full degree of freedom. There’s also a lack of optimised input to maintain a sense of immersion in experiences; while the side of device offers a touchpad, hands-on time with the HMD revealed it to inconveniently move the screen when tapped. It’s hardly the best representation of some of the movements carried out in an experience either, as is the Bluetooth controller used for other videogames.
For now though, Gear VR is an undeniably exciting prospect, bolstered by the kind of line up that we’d expect of a consumer launch of a VR HMD. Its release next month will certainly tide many VR fans over until the release of the Oculus Rift. How much of a future the device has beyond the release remains to be seen.
‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.