Oculus has tweaked the Gear VR’s home screen with faster load times, an avatar system, and a web browser you can use in virtual reality. The new Oculus Home still looks much like the old version, but it’s displayed at twice the resolution, and Oculus brags that it loads up to three times faster and uses 30 percent less battery than the old home screen. (To be clear, this doesn’t change the phone’s literal pixel density.) It includes support for Oculus Avatars, which came to the Rift last year and can give users a consistent persona across multiple apps. There’s also a VR web browser designed by Oculus, and support for playing videos straight from Oculus Home, instead of launching an app and then playing the video inside it.
The Oculus Avatars, and other features to a lesser extent, take advantage of Samsung’s new Gear VR controller. With its limited motion-tracking capabilities, it lets people use their hands to point at on-screen options, instead of the more cumbersome process of tapping a button on their temple while moving their head. This makes it easier to type with a virtual keyboard, and the controller’s trackpad is better for scrolling through app lists or web pages.
When I tried plugging a phone into the headset in a demo, Oculus Home booted up noticeably quicker than it used to, although I was still waiting a couple of seconds. The browser appears as a big curved screen with text that’s very readable, if still grainy. “We don’t expect this browser to replace your 2D browsing experience,” says mobile developer strategy head Aaron Davies. Like Samsung’s earlier, more bare-bones VR browser, it seems like a way to find videos that aren’t available through a Gear VR app — including anything from YouTube, which is officially available on mobile headsets through Google Daydream or Cardboard.
The Gear VR’s home screen is very similar to the Oculus Rift’s, especially with the addition of avatars. But after a reorganization that split Oculus’ PC and mobile VR divisions, they’re owned by different teams and may not always be identical. As Davies puts it, “fundamentally, the Rift is a gaming platform first.” Still, Gear VR Oculus Home improvements are supposed to trickle over to the Rift, and vice versa. And while Gear VR may be more focused on social and video experiences than the Rift, the new controller will bring new (and updated) games to the platform this year.