Technophile

Blurry picture but crystal clear potential

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on April 27, 2016

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The Samsung Gear VR is a fantastic advertisement for the potential of virtual reality. But it isn’t quite the finished article yet



Consumer VR is finally here. After years of talk and teasers, 2016 appears to be the year when users will finally be able to enter the world of virtual reality. Google’s Cardboard project and all the iterations it spawned have been around for a good half-year now, and those devices are little more than rudimentary proof-of-concepts compared to the full-blown virtual experience promised by PC and console powered VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR – all due out later this year.

Occupying the space in between these two types of devices is Samsung’s Gear VR. Built in collaboration with Oculus, the device is capable of running off a smartphone, but also provides an experience that is far more immersive than anything Cardboard was ever capable of. It is also fairly inexpensive, but it can only be used with a small selection of compatible smartphones – comprising Samsung’s current and previous generation of flagships.

Design

The GearVR is a lot bigger than Cardboard headsets, but is built around the same principles. The smartphone sits in front of a pair of biconvex lenses that turn the twin images playing out on the screen into a three-dimensional experience. The entire contraption is rather like a comically large pair of ski goggles.

The controls – a touch-sensitive d-pad with a select button at the centre and a back button beside it – are built into the side of the headset, offering a simple way to interact with the UI that doesn’t involve an extra controller or popping the device out. The headset is lined with detachable cushioning at every point at which it comes into contact with the user’s face, which ensures that the headset doesn’t start weighing down on your facial muscles during extended virtual sessions.

What it’s good for

The Gear VR represented our first opportunity at experiencing a user interface that works entirely in virtual space. And for the most part, Oculus has nailed it. The input stack, along with the headset’s motion sensing capabilities, works quite well with the Oculus UI to provide easy, seamless navigation that precludes the need to ever jump into Android’s stock UI. Even typing, which is a crucial part of the user experience that radically new interfaces usually get wrong, is a fairly straightforward point-and-touch experience.

The 3D and 360-degree videos that are available on the Oculus store and YouTube were the first things that attracted our attention. The novel experience of being in the middle of the action with the video unfolding all around you will no doubt be front and centre in the marketing of VR devices. However, once you’re past the initial spectacle, you start to realise that this method of presentation only works with a limited subset of content and that too for a short period of time.

What users might be more interested in immediately though, are the vanilla 2D videos. The Gear VR is capable of creating a virtual theatre of sorts, complete with seats, curtains and a large screen on to which it can project any old video. This personal theatre experience, which makes even big, CGI-laden spectacle films come alive on nothing more than a smartphone screen, has incredible disruptive potential. By encroaching on the last USP of the traditional theatre, it could eventually kill off the multiplex as we know it.

Speculation aside, the one experience that VR is certain to change forever is gaming. The Oculus Store has a handful of games that offer a fleeting glimpse into a future where gamers can completely shut out the real world and chose to exist exclusively in the virtual instead. Whether it is the drone warfare in EVE: Gunjack or the rather serene puzzles in Land’s End, the Gear VR manages to take an ordinary game and elevate it to a higher plane. Even Temple Run, which has been played to death by everybody and their dogs, has something new to offer in the virtual space.

What doesn’t work

For all its achievements, the Gear VR is still very much a first generation product. Most of the excitement it is generating is down to how much it has gotten right at the first go, but there are a fair few kinks that deserve mention.

The primary concern is the paucity of quality VR content, but that will solve itself over time. Another crucial drawback is that the virtual world created by the Gear VR lacks sharpness. Even with Samsung’s latest and greatest handset, the Galaxy S7 powering it, the device projected blurry images loaded with grain and visual artefacts.



And then there are the health issues that come hand-in-hand with virtual reality. Although we did not experience any nausea while using the Gear VR, enough people did during our testing to make it a valid concern. Mounting a powerful screen barely an inch away from your face inevitably strains your eyes. And throw in the fact that phone tends to get hot enough to resemble a freshly baked brick while plugged in and it quickly becomes obvious that continuous VR immersion is as much punishment as it is entertainment.

Verdict

The Samsung Gear VR is the best virtual reality headset that money can buy today. Together with the phone that powers it, the package costs upwards of half a lakh – which might be considered extravagant by many. But considering that the big boys of VR – slated for launch later this year – are going to need a full-blown computer to power them, it is a relative bargain.

However, unless you have deep pockets and a fascination with early stage tech, our advice would be to avoid the Gear VR for now. It is a very strong first generation offering, but it falls just short of being a great entertainment experience.

There is no doubt in our minds that your money will be much better spent a year or two down the line once the kinks have been worked out and the content is ready.

Price: ₹8,200

Love: UI, Controls

Hate: Lack of sharpness, limited content

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Published on April 27, 2016
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