Out of all the products that Samsung unveiled yesterday, it was the Gear VR — not the Note 4 or Note Edge — that intrigued me the most. At first I was a little bit skeptical, but as I started to interpret some hands-on impressions, and learn about Oculus VR’s extensive involvement with the Gear VR, the tingling started to swell. Later, when I read that the Gear VR was “the prime thing” that convinced John Carmack to leave Id Software to work at Oculus VR, the gooseflesh turned into full-blown excitement. Don’t forget that Samsung sold over 10 million Note 3 phablets, and will probably sell even more of the Note 4 $349.99 at Best Buy. If the Gear VR is priced appropriately, we are probably looking at the first real consumer-grade, mass-market virtual reality device.
The Gear VR is deceptively simple. While it looks like a dumb piece of plastic that merely acts as a vehicle for the Note 4, the Gear VR is actually more like an Oculus Rift that has had its display removed. Neither Samsung or Oculus have released exact tech specs for the Gear VR, but an Oculus blog post says it “uses [a variation] of the Oculus Tracker and firmware built into the headset for extremely accurate, ultra low-latency 3DOF tracking,” and that the overall experience, including the all-important motion-to-photon latency, is “roughly equivalent” to the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2.
The Gear VR has its own touchpad, back button, and volume keys. There’s a micro SD slot for expandability. Presumably there is a small computer/controller on-board that manages the 3DOF tracking. To use the Gear VR, though, you must slot a Note 4 into it. The two devices are bonded via USB. When you use the touchpad on the headset, or hit one of the buttons, it traverses the USB connection to the Note 4. Presumably the Gear VR’s micro SD slot is mounted by the Note 4, also over USB. It isn’t entirely clear, but I assume all of the head-tracking data captured by the Gear VR is also squirted over the USB link to the Note 4.
Unlike the Oculus Rift, which must be connected to a PC, the Gear VR is a standalone device. The Note 4 integrates all of the various sensors inputs, renders/processes the output, and then displays it on the 5.7-inch 2560×1440 Super AMOLED display. Two lenses in the headset allow your eyes to focus on the screen and provide the stereoscopic 3D effect. There is a focal adjustment for near- and far-sightedness. Hands-on reports suggest that the Gear VR, with the Note 4’s display, provides some sumptuous colors and high image quality. Some people report that the image isn’t quite tack-sharp.
Once the Note 4 is plugged into the Gear VR, some special software — created by John Carmack and Co. at Oculus VR — takes over, turning the whole thing into an Oculus Rift. For now, Oculus and Samsung are only really showing some 3D panoramas that you can look around, and some simple 3D/VR games that can be played with the touchpad on the headset. Samsung says there will be more content available at launch. The Oculus Mobile SDK, which third parties will use to write apps for the Gear VR + Note 4, will be available “before the end of October.” You will also be able to connect a Bluetooth controller, which will allow for real 3D gameplay on the Gear VR.
Overall, the Note 4 + Gear VR is probably the first high-end, consumer-grade, untethered virtual reality headset. The untethered aspect is important: Not only are the cables an annoyance, but they also tie you to the same room as your PC. With the Gear VR, you can actually walk around while you explore a virtual world. This might sound a little dangerous, especially if you’re outside, but don’t forget the Note 4’s rear-facing camera is still available for augmented reality applications or a small picture-in-picture so you can see what’s going on in the real world.
It’s not just me who’s excited about Gear VR and its untethered applications, either. In an interview with Engadget, John Carmack — of Doom and Wolfenstein fame — admitted that Gear VR was the reason he ultimately left Id Software. “That was really the prime thing that motivated me to … devote 100 percent of my attention and focus to Oculus.”
So, is this finally the beginning of the virtual reality revolution? As always with a new piece of technology, I think it comes down to two things: Price, and developer support. Samsung hasn’t yet given the Gear VR a price. Amusingly enough, as I was writing this story, Oculus VR actually went on the record and said that its consumer-oriented device will be priced between $200 and $400. Considering the Gear VR doesn’t have a built-in screen, it could be priced very cheaply — in the sub-$200 bracket, perhaps. If Samsung can sell lots of units, and work with Oculus to make it easy to develop apps and games for the Gear VR, and ideally make it easy to port software between the Gear VR and Oculus Rift – then developers might very well get on board. So yes, this really could be the start of the VR revolution.
If you thought it was a bit scary how modern life mostly consists of people walking around looking down at a smartphone, just you wait until everyone is wearing a big ol’ face-hugging visor instead.