Virtually there: the hard reality of the Gear VR

How long will it take for headsets to become more than a novelty?

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Releasing the Gear VR headset the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday in the US was one of the smartest decisions Oculus and Samsung ever made. For a medium that’s stereotypically asocial, virtual reality turns out to be a fantastic form of family bonding — little is more fun than defusing bombs with the people you love, or showing your parents their very first 360-degree video. For the holiday weekend, my Gear VR review unit was more than a gadget; it was a portal to completely new experiences.

But when the holidays are over, what will happen to the Gear VR? Is the headset a novelty or, as many of its developers and fans suggest, the start of a new medium? Once you’ve given everyone you know five minutes of virtual reality, is there much left to do? I’m not sure there is yet — and I’m not sure when that will change.

gear VR with phone exposed

Let’s get this out of the way: if you own a new Samsung phone and have some level of disposable income, the Gear VR is absolutely worth $100.

Discounting Google Cardboard clones, it’s the most portable headset ever made. Unlike the Rift or Vive, it doesn’t tie its users up with wires or require a bulky external computer. And with its thin straps (which are much more compact than on earlier versions of the Gear VR), it finally fits in a normal-sized messenger bag or purse. The tradeoffs this requires aren’t nearly as noticeable as one might expect. The lack of positional tracking, for example, creates the jarring experience of being unable to lean or duck. But developers have worked around the issue well enough that it’s often easy to forget about it. The fuzzy headset padding feels like a dirt and sweat magnet, but I managed to wear it on top of a full face of makeup and barely left a smudge.

For all that, though, the Gear VR is clearly meant for very specific situations. Under ideal conditions, the experience is seamless, if not flawless. Under anything less, it’s probably fine for about five minutes at a time. Beyond that, it ranges from mildly uncomfortable to nearly unbearable. And while the limits make total sense, they can still come as a surprise once the first thrills have worn off.

The biggest issue, by far, is paradoxically one of VR’s big selling points: 360-degree immersion. In order to take full advantage of the medium’s capabilities, you’ve got to be able to fully turn around, whether you’re doing so to catch details in a video or change direction in a game. While most reviews have mentioned that a swivel chair works best for this, it’s really that the Gear VR is often nearly unusable without one.

When you stop and think, this is obvious. But for most people, it means that the headset can be tethered to a desk (or more specifically, an office chair) as much as any Rift or Vive. It limits all kinds of uses that seem completely intuitive — like sitting on the couch, lying in bed, or riding in a car. Watching Netflix or other flatscreen video is possible, as is using the web browser and playing certain games, but some of the highest-quality experiences quickly turn into a recipe for whiplash and sore shoulders.

Standing while playing is feasible, albeit somewhat disorienting without any kind of motion tracking. But it’s still a distinct barrier, compounded by the fact that simulator sickness is still hovering around the corners of many VR experiences. I’m in roughly the middle of the motion sickness spectrum, and I had to consciously avoid anything that would trigger it, especially heat or stuffy rooms. When your landlord runs stifling central heating all winter, this is easier said than done. It doesn’t help that while the Gear VR is noticeably lighter than its predecessors, it still digs into your face after an hour or less of use.

We try out Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes at GDC 2015.

The temple trackpad, meanwhile, is an increasingly weird substitute for a conventional controller. Keeping your arm raised is quickly tiring. And using the very sensitive pad is an exercise in keeping your hand close enough to find it without sight, but not so close that you keep accidentally tapping it. Samsung lets you separately buy its Bluetooth gamepad, but it’s clearly not tailored for Gear VR, and only meant to be used for the occasional controller-based game. This is mostly baffling because it seems extremely possible to transfer the exact same trackpad interface to something like a small handheld remote — the Gear VR’s version of a detachable stylus.

It’s not surprising that something as totally new as mobile virtual reality would require changes to how we think about consuming entertainment. If you assume that VR will succeed, it’s easy to imagine a future where La-Z-Boy recliners have been replaced by swivel chairs, or even by more active peripherals like the omnidirectional treadmill — chairs are supposed to be terrible for our health anyways. Games like EVE: Gunjack, an arcade-style shooter, already work with a limited range of motion, and more developers may eventually back away from full 360-degree turning. There could be a huge number of exciting changes in the works.

But it’s possible to look at this much less optimistically. The best technology is something you buy for one purpose and keep finding new uses for. Gear VR is the opposite — using it is a process of figuring out all kinds of fascinating ways it doesn’t work. There’s the occasional welcome surprise, like the fact that playing games in cars made me motion sick, but watching movies seemed to actually help. But there are also a lot of basic logistical problems, like the fact that it interprets every turn in a car or subway track as head motion and turns your view around to match. I can’t think of a successful home entertainment technology that required so much rethinking of conventional wisdom. I also can’t think of a successful medium that punished users for enjoying it longer than half an hour (or less) at a time.

I can come up with one notably unsuccessful example, however: the Nintendo Virtual Boy, a supposedly portable device that had to be propped on a table, used a one-color screen, and paused every 15 minutes to prevent headaches and nausea. The Virtual Boy was widely panned, but looking back, reviewers could be strikingly forgiving of what we remember as its biggest shortcomings — arguing that the one-color screen was just like the popular Game Boy, or that a certain amount of headache was simply the price of entry. The fact that the Virtual Boy was unique could make any number of flaws seem insignificant.

The difference is that the Gear VR headset is comparatively extremely cheap, and that modern VR’s highs are exponentially higher than what Nintendo imagined in the mid-'90s. The Virtual Boy never inspired the sense of awe that someone gets from watching a circus or diving to the bottom of the sea. Watching someone try a Gear VR for the first time is a thing of wonder. But that sense of awe ends up compensating for serious flaws in the actual content.

Despite standouts like Cirque du Soleil show Kurios and refugee documentary The Displaced, there’s a lot of chaff in the Gear VR’s video offerings. Oculus has struck deals with studios like Felix & Paul, so it’s slightly strange that Facebook and Samsung didn’t use their considerable funds to commission a meaty, well-publicized video series at launch, something to draw users in for the days and weeks after release. The VR fiction series Gone looks exactly like this, but its 5-minute episodes are supposedly being strung out over months, and it’s still in the teaser stage.

Compared to the scattershot videos, Samsung and Oculus have pulled together a decent games catalog, with more coming out weekly. I played maybe half a dozen I'd voluntarily boot up again, and three I'd play as long as I might a mobile or PC game: cooperative bomb defusal game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, compelling point-and-click adventure Dead Secret, and my longtime personal favorite, the hacking game Darknet. Still, most of them — including those three — feel a little thin or unfinished, like beta versions awaiting new levels and more polished mechanics or graphics. And it’s worrying that the catalog’s tentpole is arguably Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. It’s a fantastic and creative project, but one that belongs to the inherently limited local multiplayer genre — in other words, it’s a great party game, but people only throw so many parties.

This is, obviously, the "chicken and the egg" problem of virtual reality: people won’t make games unless the headsets sell well, and the headsets can’t sell unless people make games. But it didn’t help that the Gear VR’s launch strategy — two generations of limited-release beta hardware, initially without any kind of payment system — incentivized no-budget demos and game jam projects so strongly. This is probably better than the first wave of Android and iOS games, but those games were padding out a system that people already used for other reasons. Entertainment is the Gear VR’s entire raison d’etre.

Virtual reality is perpetually on the verge of being ready for the mainstream, and the consumer Gear VR feels right on that verge. Whatever Samsung says, this — not last year’s Innovator Edition — is the public beta of mobile VR, the point at which we learn what works, what people want, and whether they’ll pay for it. That’s a great sign, and a great testbed for future projects.

The most interesting parts of the Gear VR are the ones that make it feel like an actual platform, even if they’re not all that useful right now. The pass-through camera could someday power a VR version of Snapchat or Instagram. The social apps are still low profile, but virtual worlds like AltspaceVR offer an interesting sense of shared presence. The web browser mostly seems like a substitute for a real YouTube app, and using it makes me feel like a caricature of a B-movie computer geek. But there’s something intangibly awesome about being able to navigate an open system that I use every day. "Don’t mind me, I’m just reading Tumblr... in virtual reality."

When I recommend the Gear VR, though, I’m still recommending the general concept of virtual reality, not long-term experiences that the medium facilitates. And I’m recommending it in spite of a slew of shortcomings, including a propensity for causing physical pain. This isn’t like complaining that a phone has a low-resolution screen, it’s like warning buyers that the screen is covered in very fine glass splinters.

Yes, this is all getting better. Oculus quite reasonably puts truly mainstream VR several years away, and products like the Rift or HTC’s Vive will offer a totally different set of experiences. Even if the Gear VR hasn’t quite clicked for me, it’s still the product of some ingenious engineering, supported by a lot of very smart developers and artists. This is just the beginning, so it's not fair to write anything off just yet.

At some point, though, we have to start treating virtual reality hardware as a product, not a promise. The Gear VR is not that point, and I’m comfortable with that. Now that the first consumer headset is up for sale, though, how long will it be until we can make that call? Will it be the first generation of high-end headsets, like the Rift and Vive? Or the launch of PlayStation VR, the first of those headsets that doesn't require a high-end computer too? Or the technological advances that make once-expensive gaming PCs available to everyone? Or the creation of a literal Holodeck?

For all the work that’s gone into virtual reality entertainment, it remains an industry powered by hype and hope. I’m waiting for the day when people stop wondering if they should get the Gear VR and start raving about what they could do on it, whether it’s an amazing game or a new TV series or, yes, a web browser. For all our sakes, I hope that’s not too far away.