The newly announced Gear VR is a milestone for Samsung and Oculus. It's the first virtual reality headset either has released without the safety net of an "Innovator Edition" or "Development Kit" label. It's coming out at the beginning of the holiday season — Samsung is openly hoping it becomes one of the year's hot gift items. It opens the platform up to anyone who owns one of Samsung's four new flagship phones: the Galaxy Note 5, the Galaxy S6, the Galaxy S6 Edge, and the Galaxy 6S Edge+. And at $99, it's selling at half the price of the Innovator Edition.
So it's a little surprising that the new model's pre-production mockup looks almost identical to the old Gear VRs scattered all around it at Oculus Connect. Samsung's design language seems totally set at this point: a chunky white container with a small trackpad on the temple. But there are a couple of significant ergonomic changes. The first is that the side trackpad now has a shallow, cross-shaped depression with a small bump in the very center.
This is an incredibly obvious feature that the Gear VR has needed from the start. The current trackpad is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the headset, and the only way to find it is to feel for the edges or swipe around until something happens. Finding controls by touch alone is still a little awkward for most people, but this at least provides some hints.
The design could change between now and November
The straps and padding around the headset are also a little different. The foam pads that sit between your face and the hard edges of the Gear VR have been replaced with softer-feeling fabric, and the bulky white plastic that used to cover most of the head straps is gone altogether. Here, though, it's less clear what will make it into the final design. Samsung specifically says it's going for greater comfort and more portability, and the original plastic straps are distinctly stiffer and bulkier. But it also says this isn't final hardware, and we could see changes between now and November. It's also hard to predict the final Gear VR build quality, although it seems likely to be as solid as its predecessors.
The single biggest new feature is hidden — it's a simple hardware tweak that lets the Gear VR support multiple phones. In the original Gear VR, users fit a Galaxy Note 4 into a pair of clamps, one of which included a Micro USB port. The consumer edition features a slider that moves those clamps for each one of its new phones. It's hard to say whether the experience will vary between phones, but regardless of screen size, all four have the same 2560 x 1440 resolution.
Unfortunately, there's not really a way to fix mobile headsets' biggest shortcomings: their weight and the lack of positional tracking. Unlike the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR has to support an entire small computer, even if Samsung's phones are slimming down. And because there's no good way to track motion from the outside, it can't detect things like leaning and crouching. But with major streaming services like Netflix and Twitch on board, plus Minecraft support down the line, Samsung and Oculus are betting that the biggest selling point of the new Gear VR won't be new hardware — it'll be having lots of reasons to use it.