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Gear VR: The Story So Far

Every E3 seems to have an overarching theme, be it the rise of new consoles, the arrival of new ways to play, or the way in which the announcements and reveals made reflect the current state of the videogame industry. With this year’s edition of the biggest show in videogames now just weeks away, it certainly feels as if it’s virtual reality’s (VR’s) turn to be the hot topic. This is, after all, the last E3 before true consumer head-mounted displays (HMDs) are released, with the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, HTC Vive and Gear VR all launching before next year’s show rolls around.

 

These are likely the last days of VR being an enthusiast topic; something that the brilliant-but-small group of passionate developers and players have raved about these past few years. The conversation is going to start spilling over to gamers that haven’t been following the technology thus far. Make no mistake about it; Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) is going to push as hard as possible to make sure everyone knows Project Morpheus is coming. Oculus VR will no doubt be using the full might of its owner, Facebook, to get the Oculus Rift into as many hands as possible. Valve will be taking advantage of its current status as the first to release to try and attract as many customers as possible.

With that in mind, VRFocus presents a brief history of the revival of VR, taking a look at each head-mounted display. We’ve already detailed the origins of the Oculus Rift and looked at Project Morpheus. Today, we discuss the HMD that’s already commercially available but, one year ago, no one even knew existed; Gear VR.

Sowing the Seeds of Mobile VR

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If, during the 2014 Game Developers Conference, someone had said that Samsung would be the first to release a major consumer VR HMD, they might have been laughed out of the room. If that person had then said the kit wouldn’t use a PC, but instead a smartphone, roars of hilarity would have forced them out of the entire conference. As far anyone knew back then, Oculus VR and Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) were the only two major players in the space, not counting Valve’s non-consumer work. In reality, though, Samsung had been planting of seeds of what would become the Gear VR for nearly a decade, and would indeed be the first out of the gate in the VR race.

In 2005 the South Korean electronics giant was granted a patent for a ‘clamshell’ HMD that used a phone as a display, as seen above. Such a device wasn’t necessarily created as a solution for a VR kit as this was well before the popularisation of the smartphones that make mobile VR possible today. In the years that followed, the concept slowly became more viable and Samsung continued to improve upon its initial concept in R&D. In this time, the company established itself as one of the leaders in the smartphone business with its flagship series of Galaxy S handsets, the first of which was released in 2010, running on Google’s Android operating system (OS). It wasn’t until the launch of it’s the Samsung Galaxy S4 in 2013 that work on the company’s work in VR would become more official.

With the Oculus Rift now a year past its historically successful Kickstarter campaign, Samsung started to create prototypes for a HMD that housed the Galaxy S4. The concept was strikingly similar to the Oculus Rift’s first development kit (DK1); the same image was shown twice side-by-side on the screen that was then pushed up against a pair of lenses so that content was shown in 3D. Running on a smartphone meant that experiences couldn’t reach the same fidelity as what was possible on PC, but the handset’s gyroscopes and accelerometers were able to act as a stand-in for head-tracking.

The First Prototypes

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Several prototypes were produced, and Samsung was learning more about the essentials of VR with each one. The company even decided that the 1080p display resolution of the Galaxy S4 wasn’t enough, despite its later inclusion in the likes of the Oculus Rift’s second development kit (DK2) and Project Morpheus. As such, a consumer HMD that supported the Galaxy S4 wasn’t deemed viable. It would take a new handset and a new partnership to make Gear VR a reality.

The Galaxy S series is far from Samsung’s only brand of smartphone. Arguably just as important as this range is the Galaxy Note ‘phablet’ line. These phones are larger in size, almost approaching that of some smaller tablets, while retaining the standard features of a regular smartphone. Samsung had established a pattern of bi-annual major smartphone releases, with a new Galaxy S phone launching earlier in the year and the next Galaxy Note coming later. With the Galaxy S5 released in early 2014, the Galaxy Note 4 was poised for launch later on in the year.

To Samsung, the Galaxy Note 4 was the first phone up to meeting its demands for consumer VR. It boasted a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display running a resolution of 1440 x 2560. The top of the range Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 chipset also made it capable of running demanding apps. As a result, the company made over thirty different prototypes trying to nail the design and features of what would become the first Gear VR.

The phone was one half of the equation, however. Samsung also met with Oculus VR and, in passing, showcased its work with the HMD, asking the VR specialists for opinions. Oculus VR was said to have several suggestions to help improve the device. An agreement was made and the two began to work together.

Gear VR for Note 4

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The press first caught wind of Samsung’s work in VR a few months before Gear VR’s reveal. As a result, it came as no surprise when the device was introduced to the world alongside the Galaxy Note 4 itself during the Samsung Unpacked conference on 3rd September at IFA 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Even the kit’s name was a known element by then.

The device wasn’t as simple a mobile HMD as other, cheaper sets that accommodated both Android and iOS smartphones. Gear VR actually had an on-board head-tracking solution and even a touchpad located on the right side. Many apps would be compatible with a Bluetooth gamepad, though those that weren’t used this pad. On the other hand, no user-facing camera meant that positional tracking, something that had become essential to VR with the release of the Oculus Rift DK2 wasn’t included. One of the major upsides to this sacrifice was a wire-free experience, as the kit didn’t need to be connected to any external hardware to run.

Gear VR was introduced as an ‘Innovator Edition’, which gave a name to any shortcomings that would reveal themselves in the weeks and months to come. Despite going on sale to the general public, Oculus VR in particular was keen to stress that this first iteration was primarily intended for developers and early adopters. That didn’t stop Samsung from going all-out with its reveal at the press conference. The company devoted a large chunk of time to its announcement and Oculus VR Chief Technology Officer John Carmack even marched onto stage to talk up the device.

While the kit itself may not have shocked, it was certainly surprising to see just how many developers were working on the platform. A flood of companies and developers both big and small poured in to support Gear VR. Developers such as Triangular Pixels and E McNeill announced the first Gear VR videogames in Smash Hit Plunder and Darknet respectively. High-profile movie companies such as Marvel Studios were also confirmed to be working on software. Even Oculus VR revealed its first internally developed videogame with a glimpse of what would become Herobound: First Steps.

These apps would all be available from Oculus VR’s own digital retail software, the Oculus Store. In fact, the company had its own ecosystem of apps for VR content such as Oculus 360 Photos and Oculus Cinema.

What was truly exciting was the immediacy of the project; Samsung promised that Gear VR would be launching in the US within the next few months. That statement was stretched to the limit, as the release took place just in time to see the year out. But even with the ‘Innovator Edition’ reservations, this made Gear VR the first major consumer release that the VR industry would see.

Yet another event, the Samsung Developer Conference (SDC), took place in San Francisco around a month before the kit’s launch. Here Samsung began what has been a pretty aggressive push for viewing and creating 360 degree video with Gear VR with the announcement of Project Beyond, it’s very own panoramic camera. Motion control specialist Sixense also revealed that its upcoming VR controller, the Sixense STEM, would support the device and even managed to incorporate positional tracking into it. A handful of new apps where announced and Samsung and Oculus VR even hinted at potential additions to future iterations of Gear VR, such as its own solution to positional tracking.

What was missing from SDC, however, was a solid release date for Gear VR. Fans were growing restless, but fortunately didn’t have to wait long. The first iteration of Gear VR saw a launch in the USA via Samsung’s online store on 8th December 2015. It was priced at $199.99 USD. This wasn’t a bad price for the HMD itself, though combined with the phone, came much closer to the $1,000 mark as a straight up purchase.

As Oculus VR had already revealed, the device launched without a commercial option for the Oculus Store, meaning that any content that was released did so for free. This meant that, rather than a full launch line-up, Gear VR instead offered a handful of demos and short experiences for its first few months of existence. One developer was kind enough to offer a full videogame for free: E McNeill posted the full version of Darknet onto the store.

Gear VR was met with measured expectations. The limited launch through the Samsung store and the ‘Innovator Edition’ branding had prepared enthusiasts for some of the issues that would crop up in those first few weeks. Overheating was perhaps the biggest issue, with the Note 4 resorting automatically stopping experiences when it got too hot, which could take as little as 15 minutes depending on the title. Those that did buy the device understood that it was far from perfect and would be far from the last iteration made available.

Another major app would launch before the year’s end in Milk VR, a 360 degree video streaming service that again proved Samsung was serious about the new medium. The app was the centre of attention moving into 2015, as the company announced major content partners such as Skybound Entertainment and the NBA at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, each other which would be working on the platform.

With the US launch out of the way, one big question remained for Gear VR: when was it going to launch everywhere else? The early months of the year saw Samsung stagger the kits release, again through its official online store, while bulking up distribution with the help of Best Buy in the US. The UK got its launch towards the end of January. Following that, the kit settled into a comfortable period of occasional new releases, all of which were still free. And free they remained until GDC 2015.

Gear VR for S6

Gear VR for Samsung Galaxy S6

Surprisingly, GDC was bigger for Gear VR than it was the Oculus Rift, despite the latter’s strong history with the show. It was here that Oculus VR announced the commercialisation of the Oculus Store, again limited to the US at first. But this was far from the biggest announcement for the device.

Rumours and leaks had once again outed a new version of Gear VR just weeks ahead of its reveal. Rather than outraging fans with a superior product less than three months after the original’s release, this new version would instead address compatibility. It threw out support for the Galaxy Note 4 and instead brought in the Galaxy Note 6, which was announced along with the new kit at the 2015 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Spain on 1st March. The Galaxy S6 was very similar to its phablet predecessor, boasting the same resolution but a smaller screen at 5.1-inches. The new Gear VR was smaller as a result, and the display enjoyed an increased pixel density.

Gear VR for S6 still carried the Innovator Edition branding, proving that Oculus VR still wasn’t ready to commit to a full consumer version of the device. It was, however, happy to suggest when it would be ready to make that commitment; during a talk at GDC John Carmack noted that the company was ready to go ‘full consumer’ with the next iteration of the device that would be revealed in Samsung’s next line-up lifecycle. Traditionally speaking, this places a reveal of the device in September 2015, likely along with the unannounced Galaxy Note 5 phone. It’s since been confirmed for sure that the consumer Gear VR will launch this year.

As for Gear VR for S6, the device has only recently started arriving in the USA and other territories around the world. International commercialisation has also arrived, pitting every country that has the Gear VR on a level playing field. A number of high-profile releases have occurred in 2015; Herobound: First Steps saw a sequel in Herobound: Spirit Champion. UK developer nDreams released its first commercial VR titles in both Gunner and Perfect Beach. The Room developer Fireproof Games stepped outside its IP for the first time to create Omega Agent. Marvel Studios partnered with digital effects studio to launch Battle for Avengers Tower. Plenty of content is now available for the device and much more is still to come.

Arguably the most exciting Gear VR event in 2015 thus far only wrapped up this week. Oculus VR hosted a month-long Mobile VR Jam seeking new content for the device, offering over $1,000,000 USD in prize money. Nearly 600 developers entered the competition and a total of 27 of them took home prize money, potentially leading to a big surge in content for the kit.

With E3 now just ahead and the launch of major PC and console-based HMDs less than a year away, it may be easy to forget about Gear VR in the coming months. Samsung and Oculus VR may well struggle to market a VR HMD that can’t compete with these mammoths at this point in time. But it’s important to remember that Gear VR is a long-term prospect. Its bigger brothers may run beefier, more immersive experiences, but they’re forever chained to the hardware that runs them. That’s Gear VR’s ace in the hole; a time when mobile devices are just as capable of supporting convincing VR experiences. When that time comes, this could gear prove to be the biggest HMD out there.