There are a lot of virtual reality headsets out there these days. As of today, Oculus has been shipping DK2 development kits worldwide for about a month. Sony has announced a few titles for Project Morpheus, which will work with the PlayStation 4. Google revealed that the most basic elements of VR aren’t hard to create with its foldable cardboard goggles. GameFace Labs is prototyping a wireless head-mounted display powered by Android. And Samsung has just announced a partnership with Oculus for the Gear VR, a headset that turns your Galaxy Note 4 into a mobile theater and gaming device. On the face of it, Oculus has just made itself a new competitor. But right now, what it actually got is a much-needed ally.
The Gear VR is a mobile alternative to the Oculus Rift, which has to be wired into a power source, a computer, and an external camera. The second development kit’s screen was a big improvement over the first — it uses the display from Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3, which means that because half the screen is shown to each eye, you’ll see a 960x1080 image. But it’s got a lower resolution than the Quad HD Note 4, which will give the Gear VR an effective resolution of 1280x1440. John Carmack waxed nerdy about the benefits of Samsung’s Super AMOLED panels, describing his system for drastically cutting latency (the Note 3 is also Super AMOLED.) The two headsets have similar fields of view: the Gear VR is 96 degrees, while the DK2 is about 100. And while the DK2 is heavily backordered, the Gear VR is set to go on sale — real sale, not pre-order — this fall.
The Gear VR is an 'Innovator Edition,' not a final product
But it’s also got serious drawbacks. For one thing, the Gear VR isn’t being sold as a finished product any more than the current Rift. The thing that’s shipping this fall is an "Innovator Edition," which is "an early-access, beta-version of the device for developers and enthusiasts." It isn’t even a complete product; you need a very specific phone, the Galaxy Note 4, to use it. And in addition to the difference in processing power, it’s lacking the most important new feature added to the DK2: positional tracking, in which a camera checks the movement of your head and adjusts your in-game position. Positional tracking was touted as one of the best ways to reduce motion sickness on the Rift — it helps your body feel like it’s in sync with whatever’s happening on the screen. But it’s doubtful Samsung is planning to ship a separate camera anytime soon.
To some extent, the Rift is going to be pitted against the Gear VR. In the short term, though, the Samsung partnership is a way to build a more solid foundation for virtual reality and for Oculus itself. It’s a foundation that Oculus desperately needs. Oculus is currently digging through tens of thousands of pre-orders for a product that the company itself fully admits doesn’t provide a great consumer experience, with no hard date for a final release in sight. If you order a Rift DK2 right this minute, it might get to you before the end of October. And no matter how much backing it has from Facebook, it’s simply not a big or experienced enough company to set up a supply chain for high-quality VR-friendly parts. Its first development kit was delayed by several months because it couldn’t get enough screens to satisfy backers’ demand, and in February of 2014, it had to suspend sales because vital components were no longer being made.
The more interested a hardware manufacturer like Samsung gets, the more Oculus can piggyback off its new technology to make the consumer Rift. If someone like John Carmack has input into the process, that’s even better. Samsung, meanwhile, gets a new market for its displays and a low-risk hardware experiment. The non-screen parts of a VR headset are cheap and simple — take away the Note, and the Gear VR is essentially a frame and a pair of lenses. John Carmack’s latency-slashing software changes can be applied to general gaming and app performance improvements. Even if VR never takes off, Samsung doesn’t lose much by putting out a prototype. If it does, it’s got a lead on Sony and other major hardware companies, especially given its importance in the display market.
Oculus can finally make VR setup less of a nightmare
Perhaps more importantly for Oculus, this is the first launch of a real virtual reality user interface. Co-founder Nate Mitchell recently called setting up the Rift "kind of a nightmare," and Oculus has been promising better software for most of this year. It needs a central, VR-based hub where users can navigate to any game or app without having to take off the headset, click a few buttons on their computer, and hope they don’t have to restart anything. The consumer version of the Rift will certainly do this on desktop, but a self-contained, Samsung- and Oculus-controlled mobile environment is the perfect place to start testing. The Gear VR is launching with "Oculus Home," "Oculus Cinema," "Oculus 360 Videos," and "Oculus 360 Photos," all of which are betas for a more polished experience down the line. Oculus Home in particular will link to a VR software store, a move away from the chaotic VR Share program that’s currently on its site.
Oculus has taken a stepping-stone approach to virtual reality, and the Gear VR is no exception. It offers a jump in screen quality and a software sandbox, both of which can be adapted for future headsets, while being identified as a beta product that won’t compete directly with the consumer edition of the Rift. The fact that it works only with the Note 4 will severely limit its reach, but it could help ease the pressure on Oculus from early adopters who want development units. And, crucially, the Gear VR will offload some of the virtual reality evangelism duties to Samsung.
Especially after its Facebook buyout, Oculus is carefully balancing its promise to focus on gaming and its goal of making VR truly mainstream. In a press release, it assured readers that "the mobile project doesn’t change our plans for the Rift or our commitment to (and love for) the PC" — a variation of its post-acquisition assurance that it was still a company that put gaming first. The Samsung partnership lets it work on a simpler, likely lower-end product without seeming to compromise the Rift or its mission. If the Gear VR does well, Oculus can apply what it’s learned to the consumer Rift. If the Gear VR does terribly, Oculus can call it a speed bump, pack up its new Quad HD screens, and move on.