Samsung's Gear VR is out today, putting virtual reality on the mass market in a way we haven't seen since the Virtual Boy — although hopefully, this time, with more staying power. The Gear VR fits around a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone, magnifying the Note's screen to create the illusion of presence. Carefully marketed as an "Innovator Edition," it's technically a beta product with no final version announced. Even so, it's probably the most user-friendly headset available, and Samsung virtual reality VP Nick DiCarlo succinctly sums up the marketing pitch: "We're very carefully trying to avoid overhyping this, but we think it's going to be amazing."
The Gear VR was built in partnership with Oculus, which has sold over 100,000 of its own Rift VR headset prototypes and describes its relationship with Samsung as symbiotic. The second generation of the Rift uses the same screen as Samsung's Galaxy Note 3, and the Gear VR incorporates a tracking sensor from the first Rift development kit, as well as an Oculus-designed user interface that will well serve as a testing ground for future Rift software. The Gear VR's catalog draws partially from existing Oculus Rift experiences — among other things, at launch, you'll be able to explore the solar system with Titans of Space and play cyberpunk hacking game Darknet. "There's a couple people that work primarily on mobile, and a couple that work primarily on PC, but a lot of what we're doing applies to both platforms," says Oculus mobile head Max Cohen. "These are two projects which are more similar than different."
"We're very carefully trying to avoid overhyping this, but we think it's going to be amazing."
But where the Rift connects via heavy wires and was conceived as a high-powered gaming accessory, the Gear VR is purely mobile, aimed at more casual users. "If VR is only ever for gaming, it's going to be a great and successful business," says DiCarlo. "But part of what we're hoping to do is really have VR evolve over time towards a mainstream thing that people do in a lot of different cases." That means games, 360-degree video, and eventually material from Project Beyond, an experimental Samsung device that can capture live or pre-recorded 360-degree video footage and stream it to a headset. For now, all Gear VR experiences are free; according to Cohen, this is partly because Oculus didn't have a sales platform ready in time for the December launch date. Developers should be able to start charging for games in early 2015.
While it might be designed with a wider audience in mind, the Gear VR still isn't for everyone. For one thing, it only works on a single model of phone. For another, it costs $199, plus another $50 for a bundled Samsung gamepad, which Cohen says is "pretty core to getting a good experience." The headset has simple controls on one temple, but some of the games either aren't playable without a gamepad or have more control options with one. DiCarlo says it's too early to tell whether later editions of the headset might be more or less expensive, especially if new technology ends up being added. Cohen, however, sees a clear goal. "I think the ideal price for Gear VR is zero," he says. "Whether it's included as a bundle with a phone or whether it could be subsidized through content sales, for a mobile VR package, we want it to be as cheap as possible."
That's something Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe once said about the Rift itself, which currently costs $350 and has no consumer launch date in sight. Now, Oculus sees two clear paths: the "really powerful, incredible" Rift and cheap, portable headsets. A number of companies besides Samsung have introduced mobile VR cases, from the low-end cardboard Dodocase, to the lightweight Pinć, to the $99 Zeiss VR One; Cohen says he welcomes the competition — though he wouldn't call it that. "We're not looking at this as having competitors, because we're not competing for unit sales right now. We are trying to get the word out about VR," he says. "That said, we don't want bad VR getting popular, because it can turn people off from the overall experience."
"This is not an experiment. This is an important part of our company's future."
Unfortunately, even "good VR" from Samsung and Oculus has some major drawbacks. The Note 4 provides a higher-resolution screen than the Oculus Rift, at 1280 x 1440 pixels per eye, but that's still not enough to read small text or use it as a replacement for your traditional desktop. And both companies readily admit a gamepad isn't the best way to interact with it. Cohen and DiCarlo seem optimistic about motion controls like the Leap Motion or Sixense Stem, both of which can be used with the Gear VR. "These are things that are not ready for prime-time, but down the line five years from now, I think the device will look very very different," says Cohen.
A few months ago, neither Oculus nor Samsung would comment on any future for their project beyond the Innovator Edition. Now, its future seems safer. The Gear VR is being sold through Samsung and AT&T's websites, and DiCarlo says it will appear in brick-and-mortar stores in the future, though he didn't give details. It's already being shown off at kiosks in 10 malls around the country. Oculus Home will also be available to Gear VR buyers starting today.
"We don't have Gear VR 12 or something like that on the map for five years from now, but this is not an experiment," Cohen says. "This is an important part of our company's future." And while Oculus keeps close ties to game developers, film studios, and peripheral manufacturers, he all but rules out working with another phone maker on more mobile headsets. "Down the line, is it something we'd consider? Sure, I think with the right partners it would make sense. But we love working with Samsung, we're committed to that for now, and we have no other plans."