Perhaps by the sheer force of its market power alone, Samsung immediately became one of the top contenders in the nascent virtual reality space earlier this year when it announced Gear VR — a headset powered by Samsung’s Note 4 smartphone, built in conjunction with Oculus. We haven’t heard much about the future of the Gear VR since it was announced, but Samsung appears poised to break its silence at its second annual developers conference, which kicks off today in San Francisco. VR will be a major topic of conversation, and the company is counting on those developers to help build the case for the Gear VR — and virtual reality in general.
"For virtual reality to really cross into the mainstream, it's gotta be more than just really awesome, killer games," Samsung’s VR vice president Nick DiCarlo says. "What is the most important use case in VR? We haven't figured it out yet, but there are lots of ideas." DiCarlo thinks video games and immersive video are the obvious places for VR to start, but he’s also anticipating a more native use case that couldn’t have been imagined before VR hardware and development tools became more commonplace. "What is the Twitter or Instagram of VR?" DiCarlo asks. "By that, I don't mean having tweets in VR or having filtered photos in VR — I mean that it's native to that platform, it's born of that platform and would not have existed without that platform."
Samsung is trying to find the first killer app for VR
Before we find that killer app, however, there’s the question of what the Gear VR brings to the table that Oculus hasn’t already done on its own. Samsung’s scale means the company should excel at getting the hardware in the hands of developers — a crucial step. "[The Oculus] DK2 is still pretty hard to come by in terms of production capacity," DiCarlo notes — but since the Gear VR is based on the Galaxy Note 4, Samsung thinks it won’t have trouble getting its hardware out to developers. "It’s a big deal to be able to say ‘hey, this is going to exist’ and that this is something [developers] are going to be able to buy." Samsung said the Gear VR would ship "this fall," and while DiCarlo declined to give any news on price or availability, he did say they were still on track to deliver it this year.
That’s good news for the developers that Samsung says are eager to start coding in virtual reality. "Everybody is really, really thirsty for this," says DiCarlo. "It's an interesting programming challenge and [developers] see new opportunities to do things that weren't possible before." It makes sense — app developers famously got rich in the early days of Apple’s App Store, and being one of the developers to crack the code of VR has to be a pretty tempting opportunity.
While Oculus will benefit from Samsung’s scale helping to push VR forward, Samsung benefitted greatly from the work Oculus has been doing in the last few years. "It’s fairly easy to put a phone into a pair of goggles, which gives you a good basic idea of what virtual reality can be, but what Oculus has really delivered is a really high quality VR experience," DiCarlo says. He credits that experience to the motion-to-photon latency of 20 milliseconds that Oculus can deliver: "it means if you turn your head, the light that you expect to see is coming off the screen." It sounds simple, but it’s key to making things feel realistic rather than vomit-inducing.
"We’re still doing all the hard work of making VR sufficiently compelling for people to try."
Of course, all this technology and developer interest is meaningless if it doesn’t effectively lead to a product that consumers want to buy. As with most other VR makers, DiCarlo and Samsung are urging patience — there’s no word on when Gear VR will be a consumer-ready product, and DiCarlo readily admits that "we’re still doing all the hard work of making VR sufficiently compelling for people to try, and we’re still in the early days of that." There’s also the very real problem that Gear VR is currently designed for a single handset. DiCarlo called the Note 4 the minimum hardware needed for a good VR experience, but he couldn’t say how the Gear VR headset might adapt to fitting both a Galaxy Note 5 and a Galaxy S6 in the future.
What exactly Samsung plans to do beyond the Gear VR hardware to push virtual reality forward remains to be seen, but we expect the company to share more details tomorrow morning at the keynote of its developer conference. At the very least, we’ll hopefully find out where and when developers can buy the Gear VR hardware, and Samsung is hosting nine sessions at the conference to teach developers how to start coding for it.
The sessions are pretty standard, with topics like using the Oculus Mobile SDK and the Unity game engine, creating realistic VR animated video and sound, and how human senses respond to virtual reality — but they should serve the purpose of spurring developers to start building the first great VR apps. "There's a ton of passion and energy for VR amongst our developers," says DiCarlo, "and that's the first step of this long journey."