I purchase something that I feel was worth every single penny I spent on it, like my Macbook Pro, my first iPod, or my motorcycle. I can now firmly add a fourth item to that list – the new Samsung Gear VR headset.
Gear VR Initial Impressions
As Samsung’s first foray into the world of Virtual Reality, this headset isn’t just a gimmicky demo of the experience that its big brothers may deliver later this year (Oculus Rift, PlayStation Vr, ect), this is in and of itself a satisfying, immersive experience, one that I admit I was surprised to have.
First, let’s get some things out of the way. This headset only works with some compatible Samsung phones (Galaxy Note5, S6 Edge+, S6, S6 Edge), and if you don’t already own one, you probably shouldn’t race out and buy one for the sake of the Gear VR. One also needs to keep in mind that the Gear VR is simply a headset that provides the illusion of VR; there is no processing power or computational assist from the headset. Your phone is the only thing creating the entire experience, so don’t expect cutting-edge PC graphics. I bring that up to manage some expectations, but I also bring it up because honestly, some of the experiences are just so good that it’s easy to forget you’re simply looking at your smartphone screen.
I unboxed my headset, removed the plastic covering on the front, snapped my phone into place, adjusted the headstraps, and, once my phone completed installing the companion Gear VR app, I was ready to begin. I sat down in my swiveling desk chair (the best way to use the Gear VR by the way), expecting to give it a good hours-worth of investigating. Four solid hours later I removed the headset from my still-impressed face.
Samsung Gear VR Headset
As my first VR experience, I spent a good amount of time navigating around the main menu, however the word ‘lobby’ might be a better term for where you begin. The navigation is easier and more intuitive than I thought it would be; simply look at the item you want and tap the touchpad on the right-hand side of the headset, or swipe up, down, left, or right to scroll through additional options. The best analogy for how the touchpad works is to imagine a textured laptop trackpad.
I then proceeded to open up the Netflix app. This app places you on a couch in front of a large television displaying the familiar Netflix interface, and allows you to look all around the room, just like one can in real life. The cool part about this for me was the fact that the ‘room’ was some kind of ski lodge, complete with high ceilings, large wooden beams, a roaring fireplace, and a snow-covered mountain range right outside the oversized windows. I was a little shocked when I realized this experience had transported me back to a ski trip I took several years ago, down to that tired, cozy feeling of warming up in front of the fire after a long day of hitting the slopes.
I watched a couple episodes of Friends, and it took me two full episodes to realize that right before each episode began, the lamps in the room automatically dimmed themselves, naturally guiding your attention to the virtual television screen in front of you. It’s these little touches that go a long way to making an experience like this enjoyable.
Then it was time for the games. I tried out three different ones, Land’s End, Eve: Gunjack, and Anshar Wars. Land’s End came first, and I was immediately hooked. This is a simple, atmospheric game set in a mountainous environment where one navigates by looking at ‘waypoints’ in the distance and being smoothly transported to them, sometimes solving clever puzzles in between to access the next waypoint. I admit, towards the end of each of the 5 levels, when one climbs further up the landscape and has the opportunity to look down over the edge of a cliff and watch the waves lap up against the rocks far below, I felt around my swivel chair to remind myself that I was indeed still sitting safe and sound in my living room, and not in fact in danger of falling off a cliff. Be sure to check out Wired’s review of Land’s End, and watch the trailer below.
I was fairly impressed with Anshar Wars as well. Emulating a modern-day space arcade shooter, one navigates around the play field with nothing more than the head-tracking of the Gear VR, and tapping on the touchpad fires your weapon at the various obstacles in your path. There was something quite satisfying about using your head to maneuver around, imparting a feeling of participation and involvement that simply using a D-Pad or a joystick can’t quite capture. Read a more in-depth review of Anshar Wars here, and be sure to check out Anshar Wars 2 as well.
Great production value, but doesn’t fully utilize the VR aspect
Surprisingly, I was the least impressed with Eve: Gunjack. There wasn’t anything in particular that detracted from this game’s experience, but as an on-rails/turret shooter, I felt as if it didn’t do enough to take advantage of the fact that it’s being played on a VR platform. Sure, head tracking is employed to aim your ‘gunjack’ at the various enemy ships and missiles that threaten your livelihood, but after the feeling of actually flying around in Anshar Wars, and being dropped in the fully fleshed-out world of Land’s End, Eve: Gunjack felt lacking. The level of polish and presentation of this game is top-notch however. Read more about Eve: Gunjack here.
If you own one of the compatible Samsung phones, buy the Samsung Gear VR. If you’re on the fence about purchasing a compatible phone, let Gear VR be the reason you pull the trigger.
I’m not usually into making broad predictions about established entertainment industries, but in this case, I feel safe in saying that VR is here to stay.