Alongside the new Galaxy Note 4 phablet, Samsung is today announcing a new accessory, the Gear VR. The Gear VR is a virtual reality headset powered by the Note 4. Samsung built it in partnership with Oculus, maker of the Oculus Rift, arguably the best VR headset, and recent Facebook acquistion. The company says the Gear VR will be available later this fall for an unspecified price.
Read next: The Samsung Gear S2 review.
The Gear VR brings to mind Google's Cardboard project, which uses a smartphone and cheap lenses to provide a basic 3D virtual reality experience. But it's a much more complete product than Cardboard, much closer to the Oculus Rift in design and apparance (and you don't have to build it yourself).
The Gear VR uses the Note 4 (and only the Note 4, it's not compatible with any other smartphone, Samsung or otherwise) for all of its processing and display features. The Note 4 snaps into the Gear VR, in front of dual-lenses that provide the 3D effect. There's a trackpad and back button on the right side of the Gear VR, and a focus adjustment on top. Samsung tells me that it's compatible with Bluetooth gaming controllers, but there aren't any specific controls for your hands at this time. Navigating menus, exploring worlds, and playing games is mostly done with head movements and taps on the side-mounted trackpad.
Using the Gear VR is very similar to using the Oculus Rift: it's a completely immersive experience that detaches you from your real environment. But unlike the Rift, there are no wires tethering you and the Gear VR to a computer, so you can freely move about and walk around. (Samsung insisted that I use the Gear VR while seated, so I wouldn't inadvertantly walk into things.) And since you strap the Gear VR to your head, you don't have to hold up to your face the entire time like Google Cardboard. There is a mode to enable the Note 4's rear camera while wearing the Gear VR, so you can "switch off" the virtual experience and see the real world.
The Gear VR experience is just as immersive and fun as Oculus Rift
Samsung built a couple of games and demo experiences for the Gear VR, including a Coldplay concert and Avengers game that let you explore Tony Stark's labs. But I had the most fun with a space shooter game, where I used head movements to steer a spacecraft and blasted enemy ships by tapping on the side of the Gear VR to fire my gun. As it stands right now, there isn't a lot of deep content for the Gear VR — the demos provide a few minutes of entertainment and not much more — but Samsung says that a content store will be available when the device is available for purchase.
Virtual reality got a significant boost from Oculus when it debuted the Rift two years ago, and now with Samusng in the game, it is poised to capture the interest of many more people. Until Samsung reveals how much the Gear VR costs and when you'll be able to buy it, it's hard to say whether it's a must buy for Note 4 customers just yet. But if our time with the Gear VR is any indication, Samsung has a fun little accessory on its hands that could put VR on the heads of a lot more people in the near future.
Photography by Sean O'Kane.