I have long been fascinated with the idea of virtual reality, but despite the explosion of VR devices and media over the last few years, I haven’t really spent much time trying it out. I’ve done a total of maybe 15 minutes in an Oculus Rift and another 20 in Google Cardboard. I’m a dilettante of the highest order, always going on about how it will change the world when I’ve barely experienced it myself.
So it was with a lot of excitement and a little bit of dread that I volunteered to write about the new Gear VR — a mobile VR headset from Samsung and Oculus. It arrived last minute, so I had to spend the better part of the last 18 hours jacked in. I came away in awe, excited for the future of this new artistic medium, bullish on its potential as an entirely new class of consumer gadgetry, and also a bit nauseous from my prolonged stay in several virtual worlds.
I took the plastic cover off the front and slipped in a Samsung Galaxy Note 5, one of four phones that work with the headset. After a quick tutorial I mastered navigation — a combination a head tracking and a track pad — then jumped into what seemed like the most straightforward experience, the video library. I started out with 360-degree videos, since I had recently experienced those with the The New York Times and Google Cardboard.
The quality of the image was abysmal when streaming. It improved once I downloaded the videos, but still looked like a 720p YouTube clip at best. Despite the sometimes pixelated and blurry visual, I had to catch my breath while flying over New York City, or splashing in waves next to emerald blue ice floes, or bathing beside an elephant in a reedy swamp. When I showed an episode to my wife, she squeezed my hand in fear and refused to let go as a school of very hungry sharks encircled her. After watching her and my 65-year-old father stretch their arms out while enjoying a video shot from a helicopter flying over Iceland, I tried the same and was rewarded with a much stronger physical and emotional reaction to the imagery.
Like almost all mobile VR headsets, this one is low resolution enough to have a slight "screen door" effect. I often noticed the edges of the lens and interior of the headset, bits of light creeping in from outside or reflecting brightly off the lenses — little things that prevented the image from being totally immersive. But a good VR film more than made up for these shortcomings. My last 360-degree film was the award-winning Inside the Box of Kurious, a recording of a Cirque du Soleil performance. And it was fantastic, frightening, and unique. Watching it felt like staring through a very thin veil, but the blurriness didn’t stop me from feeling as though I was standing beside real human beings, taking center stage in a surreal circus.
Reading terms of service in virtual reality is a special circle of hell
Of course, to get that experience, I had to download the film. While it’s easy enough to navigate and browse inside the Gear VR, there is something incredibly dehumanizing about watching a download bar tick by while trapped in a virtual living room, or worse, an endless black void. And being asked to read through a 69-page terms of service agreement inside a VR environment… well, that felt like its own special circle of hell.
After the 360-degree videos, I tried out a couple of 2D flicks in Samsung’s immersive VR theater. It was one of those funny moments where the most banal parts of the environment became completely entrancing: the empty rows of seats around me, the red carpet, the flickering shadows. One of my strongest moments of "presence" was turning to inspect the chair to my right. When I moved toward it and felt nothing, my mind stumbled to understand the empty space where a solid object was supposed to be. That said, I’m not sure the experience would have been less interesting on a nice TV, where I could see my wife sitting next to me — or the popcorn bowl in front of me.
Next I tried the more interactive experience, games — starting with EVE: GunJack, a sci-fi shooter. Again, my favorite part wasn’t the central experience, which felt a little too much like a 2D game played with my face; it was entering the massive space station as the game opened. I felt completely transported into that world, fascinated by its details. Former Pixar employees now working on VR, have dubbed this the Swayze Effect: a tendency to enjoy the surroundings more than the story when you lack the ability to meaningfully control or engage with the narrative.Land’s End, a Myst-like combination of exploration and puzzle solving, was better. I knew the "presence" it produced was strong when, standing on the edge of a cliff, I found myself unable to move my feet toward the edge — the lizard part of my brain insisting that the drop was real. Moving my feet wouldn’t actually move me in the VR space, there is no positional tracking, but I still couldn’t do it!
Occasionally I would see the inside of the Gear VR or the focus would drift off for a second, but my mind and body could easily slip back in. After maybe 40 minutes of gaming, I noticed my forehead beginning to get sweaty from the heat of the screen, the bridge of my nose aching. VR is funny that way. I didn’t find the headset too heavy, but its physical, visceral effects came at a cost. Each half-hour session left me with a slight headache and disorientation that bordered on nausea.
For people who already own a new Samsung phone, spending $99 for this caliber of virtual reality seems like a no-brainer. It’s hard to say how that price stacks up against the competition. The world of VR headsets seems to be stratifying in a really interesting way. I got a lot of pleasure out of the Google Cardboard that The New York Times recently sent to my house. But navigating through it was a nightmare compared to the Gear VR. That’s the $4.99–$19.99 VR experience, and it fits the bill.
Of course, the Gear VR probably won’t be nearly as nice as the Oculus Rift, which is slated for release in the spring of 2016. Some games that had seemed fine in Oculus Rift demos, like the fantasy adventure Colosse, stuttered and lagged on the Gear VR. But the Rift will likely cost hundreds of dollars — not counting the powerful PC you’ll need to support it.
After my family went to sleep, I crept into the living room, drew the shades, and turned off the lights. I cleared the toy trains and blocks off the rug to make a safe space a few feet in diameter. I donned the headset and began to play Land’s End again. I was lost in the world and yet, at the same time, terrified that at any moment a real person, waking up and heading for the bathroom or coming to ask for a glass of warm milk, might find me standing alone in the pitch black, shuffling around and grasping at air like a madman. I suddenly yearned for the ability to keep the real world vaguely in the background, a tether to reality.
And then I cracked the puzzle, and the boulder rolled aside, opening a passageway to the clifftop where I had seen the strange mystic altar. My anxiety about intrusions from the real world slipped away. I crept toward the next challenge, birds wheeling overhead, sunlight streaming through their wings.