Despite having only been revealed in September, Gear VR, Samsung’s smartphone-based virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD) has quickly become one of the most important and exciting products in the industry. Not only is this one of the first HMDs to come from a major electronics manufacturer, but it also marks the release of Oculus Rift HMD creator Oculus VR’s first commercial product, having been developed in partnership with Samsung. That said, you might not want to refer to it as a consumer release when in earshot of the VR specialists.
Despite being available for just about anyone in the US to pick up, Gear VR’s first few months in the spotlight can best be referred to as testing the waters. Oculus VR itself still refers to the device, which runs VR experiences using Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphone, as a developer kit and with good reason.
It came as a pleasant surprise when rumours first suggested that Samsung was working on an HMD of its own. Many have prophesised that there will come a time when all major electronic companies will have a VR HMD on the market but few expected one to arrive in 2014 from the likes of a giant such as Samsung. Excitement only grew as Oculus VR was tied to the device, with the VR community now eagerly gathering to watch its unveiling at an event in September.
The announcement itself was something of a success; despite a lack of solid launch details Samsung revealed a host of new VR experiences for the device and the development community welcome it with open arms. It represented the first time that titles such as Darknet and Dreadhalls could be seen as premium videogames in their own right. The Note 4’s 5.7 inch, Quad HD display represented a significant step up from even the Oculus Rift’s second development kit (DK2) and the use of the mobile phone allowed for an untethered experience long before many thought it would arrive. Teases that the device would be launching within the next month only served to strengthen anticipation.
In the following months the VR community’s patience was tested as October came and went without so much as a mention of Gear VR’s launch. The smartphone industry isn’t known for rock solid release dates, usually rolling handsets out to various regions over the space of weeks and months rather than revealing a specific launch day, but the lack of even a hint of when Gear VR would be coming was concerning. Then came the rather unusual news that the device would be launching without a premium digital store and offer only free content at launch.
Concrete information on launch finally came in mid-November at the Samsung Developer Conference (SDC), where the company revealed an early December launch for the device in the US. Pre-registration pages were opened and the community became excited once more.
It was just one week ago now that the big day came. Despite those that did pre-register never being notified, Gear VR did launch on Monday 8th December 2014 and is still available to order in the US for $199 USD. Last minute adjustments to the price of the Galaxy Note 4 meant that the entire set up wasn’t quite the ridiculously expensive proposition that it had been in the run up to launch, provided users were ready to take the smartphone on contract. The release was also accompanied by a blog post from Oculus VR that stressed time and again that the device had a long list of issues that it was working to solve before the company itself would be happy with the ‘consumer’ branding. Until then, Gear VR will remain as an Innovator Edition.
Gear VR’s story this year is one of caution. Despite initial hopes of this being the first truly commercial launch for VR, it’s the creators aren’t quite ready to commit to finalisation. Gear VR is a promising HMD and no doubt there will be plenty of compelling experiences for the kit in 2015, but the current lack of a premium store and technical issues such as overheating phones mean that this is far from the arrival of true consumer VR. How Oculus VR and Samsung work to bring it up to that standard next year is going to be one of the most interesting stories to follow.