Samsung’s Gear VR is one of the most popular virtual reality headsets, but recently, its future has seemed uncertain. Samsung didn’t mention the mobile headset during this week’s Unpacked event, and it hasn’t significantly updated the hardware since 2017. Despite this, the company said that all four of its new Galaxy S10 phone models will work with the Gear VR, using an adapter that ships with the headset.
The Gear VR doesn’t seem to be facing imminent extinction. In fact, it seems to be in near-stasis, which is frustrating if you’d like to see Samsung fix its many problems, but it might make the most practical sense.
When Samsung and its partner Oculus launched the Gear VR in 2015, the $99 plastic shell was many people’s cheapest and simplest option for decent-quality VR. Today, Google sells the very similar Daydream View mobile headset, which can be powered by a range of Android phones. The $199 Oculus Go offers Gear VR apps in a more convenient package. And several companies — including Oculus, HTC, and Google — are working on wire-free headsets with full motion tracking and virtual hands.
The Gear VR is also an easy product to maintain. Buying a better phone will automatically upgrade its screen, processor, or battery. After Unpacked, an Oculus spokesperson confirmed to The Verge that “we continue to partner with Samsung and are committed to supporting Gear VR users.” But they’re not necessarily expending lots of energy on it; supporting the headset is easy because it’s so similar to the Oculus Go. Samsung can steadily improve the Gear VR just by waiting for other products to get better without ever touching its hardware.
Institutional inertia might help, too. Film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca, which have become prime venues for VR experiences, started using Gear VR headsets in the early days of 360-degree video. So far, they haven’t stopped. Last month’s Sundance Film Festival still screened its VR cinema programming with Samsung headsets. VR videos don’t support full-body tracking, and they don’t need controllers, so the Gear VR’s relative simplicity is still perfect. If the programmers have to expand their collections, it’s easier to go with something they’re already using.
The best-known VR games don’t come to Oculus Go or the Gear VR. They’re on more sophisticated platforms like the Rift and Vive. And it’s difficult to make money selling media for VR at all. But Oculus continues to promote mobile VR as a good home for immersive video, and it’s invested in projects that demonstrate this. Yesterday, it released a 21-minute Eminem mini-documentary called Marshall From Detroit — which premiered at Sundance — on the Oculus Store.
Unfortunately for Samsung, that still doesn’t give mobile VR mass-market appeal, and most existing Gear VR owners have few reasons to buy a next-generation model unless it includes some radical changes. Even bundling the device with a phone — something Samsung has done in the past — has diminishing returns if buyers got a headset for free with their last purchase.
According to analyst group SuperData, Samsung shipped 7.8 million total units between its release in 2015 and the end of 2018. But over the past year, it’s lagged behind Sony’s PlayStation VR and the Oculus Go — an estimated 700,000 PlayStation VR and 555,000 Oculus Go headsets shipped in the last quarter of 2018, compared to around 130,000 for the Gear VR. The IDC estimated that phone-powered mobile headset shipments declined by 58.6 percent last fiscal quarter, while the market for Oculus Go-style standalone headsets grew 428.6 percent. (Although that market was tiny before 2018, so the number isn’t as eye-popping as it might look.)
If there’s a consistent but small user base for the Gear VR, it makes sense to keep selling and supporting the device but not treat it as a flagship product with a traditional upgrade cycle. That’s bad news for people like me, who would like an overhaul of the Gear VR’s uncomfortable ergonomics and clunky phone-pairing system. But it could make the Gear VR a bit like the iPod touch of VR headsets: not flashy or groundbreaking, just reliably useful for the people who like it.
It’s hard to say how long this will be true. As my colleague Sean Hollister pointed out, Samsung has to restrict the size and shape of its phones to stay Gear VR-compatible, and it’s currently investing in weird experimental designs like the Galaxy Fold, which seems like an unlikely fit at best. Eventually, the company will have to decide whether to revamp the Gear VR for a new generation of phones or let it fade into the past.
For now, though, the Gear VR might be exactly the kind of thing we should want from hardware companies: a functional product that you can buy without assuming a better version will come out next year.