It appears that things are finally falling in place for the launch of Samsung’s Gear VR, a new virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD) that runs with the company’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. The kit is due to arrive in the USA in a matter of weeks, launching in early December 2014. Even with the delay of just under two months, that’s a remarkably quick turnaround from the reveal of the device back in early September 2014. That said, Gear VR isn’t set to have the most straightforward launch. There are a number of factors that make it something of an unknown quantity at the moment. Just how are things shaping up ahead of release?
One can’t help but get excited by the thought of the Gear VR. At the beginning of 2014 many had hoped that this might finally be the year that a consumer VR HMD launches to the masses. Of course, it was thought that HMD would be the Oculus Rift but at least Samsung is making good on that hope with help from Oculus VR. And Gear VR certainly has the feel of a consumer product thanks to the sheer amount of developers that have pledged support for the device. Fans will see VR titles from the likes of Fireproof Games, Jeff Minter, Harmonix, Imagini Studios and even Oculus VR itself hit the platform in the coming months. Back at the device’s reveal it felt like a load had been lifted as developers could finally talk about their titles as real, saleable products.
Of course, one of the first hiccups is that these products won’t be saleable at all when Gear VR first launches. As revealed earlier in the year, Samsung will initially release the kit with a free store only. This means developers won’t be able to charge for their content until a premium store arrives at an unknown date. As such, many studios are offering free demos and samples for the kits launch, although a select few are being brave and releasing a full videogame for no charge. This is a strange approach; imagine launching a PlayStation or an Xbox launching with only demos for the first month, though forgivable should the premium store follow shortly thereafter in 2015. Even with this in mind, there should be plenty to sample at the kit’s launch.
That said, Samsung is covering its bases with many of these issues by labelling the first Gear VR units as ‘Innovator Editions’ aimed at early adopters and developers. It’s this term that’s also holding back demands for a more accessible launch. Currently those interested in Gear VR in the US can pre-register to pre-order the device online. An exact shipping date is unknown as is the kit’s retail presence. Will consumers be able to walk into a store and pick up a Gear VR once shipments commence? This is a release that seems to be being handled in a curiously limited fashion, more closely resembling Oculus VR’s development kit rollouts than a Samsung product launch.
Perhaps this is for the best, however. Oculus VR has often said that bad VR is the biggest threat to the industry and should there be any unseen technical problems with Gear VR, this contained release will minimise the damage. There are still a lot of questions surrounding the device, especially concerning potential heating issues and battery life. These aspects simply won’t be addressed until consumers have had the chance to test out the kit for an extensive period of time. Should any issues arise then, quite smartly, Samsung hasn’t poisoned the well.
There’s also the topic of price, although it’s hard to comment on the $199 USD tag for Gear VR when adding the varying costs of the Galaxy Note 4 into the mix. Straight up buying Samsung’s latest enlarged smartphone can set you back in the region of $800 at some outlets, meaning around $1000 for the entire Gear VR set up. It would be easy to criticise this price point, but phone networks usually offer monthly plans to make these expensive handsets much more affordable albeit over a long period of time. You can’t simply state that ‘Gear VR will cost $1,000’, then, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much you can expect to pay when throwing in monthly plans. At the very least, it certainly isn’t the low-cost Oculus Rift alternative that other HMDs are billing themselves as.
But don’t forget that you are paying for a product that, in some ways, bests Oculus VR’s most recent iteration of the Oculus Rift in its second development kit (DK2). While Gear doesn’t offer positional tracking, its 2.5K super AMOLED display runs circles around the DK2’s 1080p display. It sets a new standard that the consumer Oculus Rift will at the very least need to match for release. Indeed the Crescent Bay prototype suggests that it will. Add to this the advantages of an untethered experience and Gear VR makes a compelling case for that higher price point.
Gear VR is exciting. It has the feel of a true consumer launch with the support of multiple developers. But with that launch comes a number of questions. How will the device sell? Will there be technical issues? What are Samsung’s own expectations of the device? No doubt the smart option would be for many consumers to wait and see how the kit performs, but then VR fans have been waiting for a long time for this moment. With any luck Samsung are about to get 2015 off to a running start for VR, but it will still be some time before we can tell.