Playing the Future: First Weekend with the Samsung Gear VR

This last Saturday, I made a purchase. Having long been following the growth in the emerging virtual reality (VR) market, it made sense that I finally dive in. My purchase: a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge smart phone and a Samsung Gear VR headset. At the time, I worried that, given how busy my weekend was, I wouldn’t find a lot of time to fiddle in the new realm of virtual reality. Turns out, the Samsung Gear VR has no problems capturing and holding attention.

It took a short while to set up. From getting my phone/headset to being ready to go probably took roughly two hours (for the record – most of this was time spent copying over phone data and driving to/from my house). For those looking to get one of these things, I definitely recommend doing it in the morning, so that VR can occupy the rest of your day.

The Gear only works with newer Samsung products (Galaxy 6 and up) so you may need to upgrade your phone to play.
The Gear only works with newer Samsung products (Galaxy 6 and up) so you may need to upgrade your phone to play.

Jumping in, I was immediately impressed by… the shopping menu screen. Sounds weird, right?

The menu itself was fairly standard. A collection of input boxes like “Store” and “Library” that would not give anyone with any electronics experience pause. No, what made the menu captivating was the fact that, after putting on my Gear VR, I was suddenly in a house that wasn’t my own. Moreover, it was a fancy, futuristic home. While I can’t move around it (to my knowledge) I could look to the kitchen, the pool, out the sunroof – anywhere I wanted.

Part of the future house is visible in the background. No 2D picture, however, is able to do this justice.
Part of the future house is visible in the background. No 2D picture, however, is able to do this justice.

The couch I was sitting on felt far away and, despite the far-from-perfect resolution, I actually found part of my brain believing that I was really there. Again I want to stress – this was a storefront.

My first actual experience was a Cirque Du Soleil program that came free when I installed the Oculus storefront. When it began, I was in an empty auditorium, sitting in either the front row or directly on stage. Many of the Cirque Du Soleil clowns came towards me, dancing and laughing (as clowns do). Those with clown-related fears, be warned – they come right towards you and hang around at your left and right for the remainder of the show.

Then a rope swing descended above me and I watched as two other performers appeared. They mounted the rope swing and it ascended, giving me a front-row seat to their short performance. They swirled and twirled and did all manner of acrobatic feats in the short time I was able to watch them. This performance, like most VR experiences was on the shorter side, and it was over before I knew it.

I hadn’t even played a game yet, and already I was sold on the experience. With most movies – you watch. That appears obvious to type. Watching Captain America: Civil War – I watched a bunch of heroes fight. I didn’t just watch Cirque Du Soleil – I experienced it. Was it a perfect substitute for reality – no, it was in a place in-between.

This was made clearer by Nomads, a VR-only show that takes the user around the world to three nomadic tribes. It was a short documentary without any narration, yet was still an incredibly immersive experience. I felt like was canoeing through villages, visiting their homes, watching them cook food. VR’s ability to place me within the world led to an incredible, personal, voyeuristic experience.

This was one of the perspectives experienced in Nomads.
This was one of the perspectives experienced in Nomads. Sadly the video quality was not usually at this resolution when I played.

Remember when the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation came out and suddenly 3D… er limited 3D was possible? Characters were still confined to a 2D screen, but were able to move around freely and explore like never before. VR is an experience similar to this breakthrough, only on such a grander scale. The Gear even enhances 2D experiences like Netflix – I was taken to a cabin in the mountains and provided with a theater-sized screen to watch movies on, surrounded by portraits of the characters from Netflix’ original programming (my favorite was the portrait of Bojack Horseman). I have yet to watch a full movie in Netflix VR – but it is definitely on my to-do list.

In the Netflix VR app - you're on that couch.
In the Netflix VR app – you’re on that couch. The TV looks a lot bigger from that perspective.

Another program, Milk VR, allowed me to play personal movies from my phone as if I were in a theater. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see my dog as a puppy again, chasing her tail right in front of me.

To tell the truth, I didn’t spend much time in the games. I have ordered a controller and am waiting on that to dive in – but let me just say this: Minecraft exists on this thing. If it is anything like the other experiences I have had, I will not be playing Minecraft outside of VR from now on. (I have already written an article on how Minecraft may be the definitive app for VR).

The games I did play included a temple-run style space game, where I controlled a ship by leaning my head to the left and to the right, and a coral reef adventure game where I swam around in a virtual undersea world. I didn’t play much of the undersea one as it appears to be an experience that will be better with a controller. Even with the limitation – it was still a lot of fun.

I also installed Sisters… but haven’t mastered the courage to play it yet.

There are some drawbacks to the device – so far, I haven’t found any terrific social apps – so it can be a little isolating in the VR world. I have installed Altspace, but the one time I have tried it, I could not get past a loading screen (at least I think it was a loading screen). Some of the apps can also be a little nauseating, although that problem too has been going away the more time I spend in VR. Also, while the controls on the side of the headset aren’t bad – it would be nice if controllers were more available. The phone can also get hot if it’s made to do too many things at once – this problem has only been experienced once so far.

One last note – where is the X-Men Cyclops game for this? It is the ultimate no-brainer. Get on that, Marvel.

It makes all the sense.
It makes all the sense.

In short, the Gear is one the cheapest “true” VR device on the market. It cannot do the things that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can… but it is still an incredible device that shows how wondrous the future will be. The age of virtual reality is upon us, with all its strengths and challenges. I advise everyone to dive in as soon as possible, and the Gear VR is a great way to do so.

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