Earlier today, the Czech site Samsung Mania published what they claimed were leaked renders of a new controller for the Samsung Gear VR headset. The accessory would be made by Samsung's partner Oculus and would feature one analog stick, four face buttons, two bumpers, a "home" button, and a button for pairing the device via Bluetooth. The most notable feature is that while the Gear VR isn't in use, you could snap it into the space your phone usually fits, making the whole package self-contained.
Oculus has declined to comment on the alleged leaks. The images have unclear sourcing, and the only additional details in the written article are that it weighs 300 grams and should be coming "soon." The gaming fanbase loves trying to trick people with incredibly elaborate fake products, so the red flags are more vivid than usual. That said, input is the big VR battlefield right now — what you can do in virtual reality will have a huge impact on what virtual reality is. And whether or not the design is from Oculus, it's still clearly a concept that someone finds compelling, and a reasonably plausible one. So let's temporarily put aside our doubts and talk about what it would mean for Samsung to release a controller like this in the next several months.
Samsung would be hedging its bets on Daydream...
One of the big questions about Google's new Daydream VR platform is what Samsung — the world's largest Android phone maker — will do with its existing headset once Google bakes VR into Android. We already know Samsung is making a Daydream-compatible phone. But if it's releasing a controller that's substantially different from Daydream's, then it's still investing in the Gear VR as a separate product, and one that could split up the mobile VR ecosystem.
...but maybe not very much.
Here's the weirdest element of this leak: it suggests that Samsung is either releasing a new headset alongside the controller, or planning to keep the old headset around for quite a while. The next Gear VR (if there is one) is widely expected to have phones clip in via a new USB-C connector, instead of the current Micro USB. It would be hard to sell people on a controller that would become obsolete in a few months, and if it's packaged with a new headset, it's a little odd to not include that in what are supposedly private, internal renderings of a product that's coming "soon." Conversely, if Samsung just wants to keep the old Gear VR around, it will have to either keep its phones on Micro USB for another generation, or relegate the Gear VR to a last-generation product.
(Yes, you could theoretically make a cross-compatible device by just making the port a big, empty hole. Not only is that incredibly convoluted, Samsung didn't bother making the current Gear VR work with older phones, so I'm not sure why it would care about backwards compatibility now.)
Oculus would be moving the Rift and Gear VR closer together...
This design is far closer to the Oculus Rift's Xbox One controller than Daydream's little motion-tracking remote. Oculus' biggest strength on any platform right now is its games catalog, which already includes a lot of overlap between the Rift and the Gear VR. You can play some of these games on the Gear VR by buying a third-party Bluetooth controller, but that's an inconvenient extra step. Making it easier for developers to simultaneously build for the Rift and the Gear VR could help keep them on board with Oculus — and by extension, the Gear VR — instead of building games that require Daydream's radically different interface. Theoretically, you could even get the best of both worlds but putting some Daydream-style motion sensors inside the case.
...but not very well.
I'll be honest: if this is a close representation of a product that Oculus is about to unveil, it's a little off its game. Given how much work the Rift's industrial designers put into perfecting every single line and texture on the headset, this design is clunky, with way too much blank space around the controls. Even if it included motion sensors, it would be difficult to use as a Daydream-like remote. And while it looks like a gamepad, it's too stripped-down to directly support Xbox controls, while retaining all the features that make gamepads inaccessible to non-console gamers — like the four identical buttons with labels you can't see in VR.
So what's going on?
Well, last time we got some (incontrovertibly real) leaked Oculus images, they turned out to be early concept renders of the Rift. If these are real Oculus or Samsung designs, they look like something that was mocked up during development of last year's consumer Gear VR but ultimately scrapped, like the front-facing camera on those Rift renders.
Of course, that doesn't mean that a similar product might not be coming. After all, the Rift images also gave us our first look at the Oculus Remote, an accessory nearly identical to its leaked version. And Samsung filed a patent for a somewhat similar gamepad last year.
If Samsung is keeping the Gear VR as a separate, non-Daydream headset, it desperately needs a better controller, and a clip-in device of some sort is an elegant solution. But that's a big "if," and one we won't be able to judge until this fall — when Daydream becomes, well, less dreamy. The verdict on this controller is easier: please, no.