Samsung’s Gear VR headset reaches the marketplace

Samsung's Gear VR: now available in the US & pre-orders being taken in the UK
Samsung’s Gear VR: now available in the US & pre-orders being taken in the UK

Can’t wait for the Oculus Rift consumer edition to arrive? Got a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phablet (or thinking of upgrading your existing contract to a Note 4?) Then you can get into the VR revolution wirelessly, if still pretty much on a “beta” basis.

The Gear VR headset, featuring Oculus technology, is now available in the US for around $200.00. The headset can be ordered from the likes of AT&T and direct from Samsung US, which both price the headset at $199.00 – although a game controller is a purchasable extra (Samsung offer 30% off the price of their gamepad if purchased with the headset)

Offering a wireless, portable VR experience, the Gear VR headset requires the Samsung Galaxy note 4 phablet
Offering a wireless, portable VR experience, the Gear VR headset requires the Samsung Galaxy note 4 phablet

Within the UK, advance order of the Gear VR headset are currently being offered by the likes of Expansys for £159.99 sans controller but inclusive of VAT. Handtec are offering the headset at £185.99 inclusive of VAT, or £239.99 (inc VAT) for the headgear and a controller.  Handtec are also supplying a 16Gb micro SD card for the Note 4 along with both versions of the headset. This contains a collection of immersive trailers and film tie-ins, and a Cirque du Soleil 360-degree immersive experience, all of which are separately available through the Oculus Share store.

Samsung are offering 30% off the price of their game controller (which works with most of their smartphones) t US purchasers of the Gear VR headset
Samsung are offering 30% off the price of their game controller (which works with most of their smartphones) t US purchasers of the Gear VR headset – although the company also admits, a game controller isn’t the best way to partake of an interactive VR experience…

The Samsung Gear VR Innovator’s Edition headset combines the Note 4’s Super AMOLED 2560×1440 and software (remembering that the Note 4 is not included in the Gear VR’s retail price) with the Oculus Rift’s optics,  head tracking and dedicated controls – you can see the full specs on the Samsung global site.

According to The Verge, the tracking controller is from the Oculus DK1. Also, note that although the finish product is more polished than the Oculus DK offerings, “innovator” in the name should be taken as indicative that it is still a “beta” unit.

This is something the company itself is emphasising, with Samsung virtual reality VP Nick DiCarlo carefully defining the marketing approach to this release of the Gear VR, “We’re very carefully trying to avoid overhyping this, but we think it’s going to be amazing.” DiCarlo also notes that while company’s game controller is being offered at a discount when ordered with the headset, game controllers are perhaps not the ideal companion for immersive VR experiences.

That Handtec are  also offering offerings from the Oculus store helps to underline the fact that the Gear will work with content that is already available. In this regard as well, Titans of Space, already hugely popular with DK1 and DK2 users, is pointedly listed as being available for the Gear VR, as is cyberpunk hacking game Darknet. Oculus Mobile themselves are keen to point-out that they are working on both sides of the net with products suitable for both mobile options and for desktop / laptop options.

Titans of Space: an Oculus  / Gear VR experience which allows users to experience the majesty of the solar system
Titans of Space: an Oculus / Gear VR experience which allows users to experience the majesty of the solar system

Samsung is also promoting a new VR service alongside the headset – although this still, at the time of writing, has yet to be rolled-out. It’s called Milk VR, which the company defines as:

Milk-VRThe company’s first virtual reality content service. Milk VR will deliver new and immersive 360° videos five days a week, with channels in music, sports, action and storytelling. The service also tracks what is trending across the VR landscape, to help viewers find the best VR content.

Samsung’s belief is that by making VR a mobile experience, they stand to help it gain more widespread acceptance as an entertainment medium – hence the Milk VR offering. “If VR is only ever for gaming, it’s going to be a great and successful business,” DiCarlo told The Verge in another interview. “But part of what we’re hoping to do is really have VR evolve over time towards a mainstream thing that people do in a lot of different cases.”

This is perhaps also reflected in the company’s recent launch of Project Beyond, a 3D, 360-degree camera rig designed to capture videos and stream them on the Gear VR.

However, not everyone is convinced that releasing the Gear VR now is necessarily a good move. At the end of November, having tried a pre-release version of the headset, TechRadar noted:

Where the Oculus Rift is tethered and feels like a “grown up” version of virtual reality, the Gear VR feels more accessible as a mainstream product. But this December may be too soon for Gear VR to hit the market. Sure, it’s targeted at early adopters and developers but making it widely available doesn’t seem to be the right move. Given more time to improve latency and allow more content to flow in, it could very well be a hit.

It might also be argued that while both Project Beyond and Milk VR are interesting concepts, they perhaps also demonstrate a lack of imagination, regulating VR to what James Cameron recently critiqued as little more than “stand and watch” (although it has to be said Milk VR could easily offer more in the way of involvement and interaction, depending upon the content curated through it). Nevertheless, by making VR more accessible and less reliant on slaving yourself to a computer, Samsung is more on the right track in making VR a more accessible medium with full freedom of use.

Nor are they entirely alone – Carl Zeiss recently launched their $99 (£79 / 99 Euro) Zeiss VR One, which is intended to work with a range of mobile ‘phones, starting with the Galaxy S5 and iPhone 6 (in a novel move, users are being asked to vote on which other ‘phone should be supported by the headset in the future). The headset is tied to an app supplied by the company, which may limit initial offerings, but Zeiss are also offering developers wanting to work with the Zeiss VR One access to their open source Unity3D SDK so that games and other offerings can be more easily developed.

Zeiss VR One - yours for $99.00 (£78.00  / 99 Euros
Zeiss VR One – yours for $99.00 (£78.00 / 99 Euros)

While mobile headsets may well be the means by which VR could achieve deeper market penetration than being constantly slaved to a computer, they will require  fair amount of maturing. The Gear VR Innovator Edition, for example, despite having a higher image resolution capability, thanks to the Galaxy Note’s screen, actually delivers pretty much the same per-eye experience as the Oculus DK2, so on-screen text can still appear blurred and hard to read.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see where this all leads, and what else might pop-up in the mobile sector of the new VR market ahead of the Oculus Rift eventually making its appearance. And on that point, please don’t see the arrival of the Gear VR as indicative that the Oculus Rift is now “just around the corner”; Brendan Iribe seems to have been pretty clear on that subject recently, and the emphasis at Oculus VR is still on getting it “right”, rather than getting it “out”.

All images of the Gear VR and the Milk VR logo courtesy of Samsung; image of the Zeiss VR One, courtesy of Carl Zeiss AG; image from Titans of Space courtesy of Drash VR LLC.