Samsung Gear VR – Virtual Reality’s mobile future?

The VR charge arrives earlier than expected with the first commercially available Oculus product

If you’re too impatient to wait for Sony’s Project Morpheus or the finished version of Oculus Rift you’ll still be able to get your hands on a Virtual Reality headset before the end of the year. Announced last week, and developed in conjunction with Oculus, the Samsung Gear VR will be the first commercially available Oculus product, and the first serious entry in the VR market to hit store shelves – and no, Google Cardboard doesn’t count.

The headset will launch shortly after the October release of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, and the electronics giant is targeting “innovative consumers, specifically VR enthusiasts, developers, mobile experts and professionals, and early technology adopters”. In other words, it’s aware that right now VR is a relatively niche product, and it’s a not insignificant investment. Though the device itself is reasonably priced at £150, at the moment the headset will only work with the Galaxy Note 4, and unless you’re ready to upgrade your mobile contract, shelling out for a SIM-free version will put it out of the range of most consumers.

You can turn on the rear camera at any time while wearing the Gear VR headset if you need to see where you’re going – taking it off might be a more sensible idea, though.

Nonetheless, its appearance at the IFA 2014 consumer electronics show in Berlin shows that Samsung is taking VR very seriously indeed. The Galaxy Note 4 snaps neatly into the stylishly designed headset, positioning the phone’s screen in front of two lenses which generate an immersive 3D effect. On the right hand side of the headset, there’s a touchpad which responds to taps and swipes, and a back button, while on top is a dial to adjust the focus, allowing near- and far-sighted users to tune the image to their individual needs.

The touchpad and head tracking is used to control most of the demos, though Samsung says that the device will be able to connect to wireless game controllers via Bluetooth. Understandably, the main focus is on games that can be controlled without traditional means – right now, the main advantage Gear VR has over its peers is that it’s completely untethered, allowing you to walk around while you play. Not that we’d recommend doing so, of course.

For the time being, the focus is on experiential content – and as such, several of the apps are of the non-gaming kind. In one, you’ll be able to stroll around Tony Stark's lab, meticulously recreated from Joss Whedon’s forthcoming superhero sequel Avengers: The Age of Ultron, or appear on stage with Chris Martin and co. at a Coldplay concert, should such an idea float your boat.

More exciting – and with much clearer gaming potential – is Legendary’s Pacific Rim: Jaeger Pilot, which gives you the chance to step into the cockpit of a giant robot and battle Knifehead, a terrifying kaiju from the film. Using the original CGI assets Industrial Light and Magic created for the Guillermo del Toro movie, its maker describes it as “the most advanced virtual reality combat simulation in the world” – a bold claim, but it’s certainly a visual spectacle, as it’s powered by Unreal Engine 4.

Which brings us rather neatly to the tech itself. No, the Gear VR won’t be quite as capable as Project Morpheus or the finished Oculus Rift. But the Note 4 is a powerful beast, with a 2.7GHz quad core processor, 3GB of RAM, and a 5.7-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED screen running at a pin-sharp resolution of 2560×1440. Its viewing angle of 96 degrees, meanwhile, is just four degrees shy of the Rift, while that all-important motion to photon latency – a key factor when it comes to immersion - is impressively low, at less than 20ms.

“Mobile favourite Temple Run has been reworked into a terrifying first-person experience - look over your shoulder and you can see the monster galloping hungrily after you.”

It’s particularly crucial for gaming, of course, and Samsung is using a simple but enjoyable first-person space shooter to demonstrate that. Here, you move your head to pilot a spaceship, shooting enemy craft by tapping the touchpad on the right of the headset to fire. Sure, it’s not quite the same as Luke Skywalker on the Millennium Falcon’s gun turret, but it’s not hard to see the potential. Meanwhile, mobile favourite Temple Run has been reworked into a first-person experience, albeit one where you move using a traditional game controller – it’s all the more terrifying when you can look over your shoulder to see the pursuing monster galloping hungrily after you.

“That the tech is built into the device, and doesn’t require you to be hooked up to any other expensive equipment, is a huge plus.”

You can easily imagine someone creating a similar app for gym-goers – a refit of the popular Zombies, Run! to help wile away a half-hour on the treadmill, perhaps? And that’s the beauty of Samsung VR, and the reason why it stands a good chance of gaining consumer traction: the fact that the tech is entirely built into the device, and doesn’t require you to be hooked up to any other expensive equipment is a huge plus. You could even use it to liven up household chores – why not watch a movie while you vacuum the lounge?

Samsung’s tagline of “immersive experiences - anywhere, anytime, just for me” not only shows that it gets VR, but also perfectly encapsulates the advantages it has over the competition. It has said that a digital store for VR content will be available when the device launches, which will include terrific strategic puzzle game Darknet, winner of the 2013 Oculus Indiecade VR game jam, as well as the aforementioned experiences, and more besides.

Though it’s available to anyone, Samsung is positioning the initial release of Gear VR as “an early-access beta version of the device for developers and enthusiasts.”

Currently, the biggest stumbling block for Gear VR – outside the need to own a Galaxy Note 4 – is the absence of a sound solution. There are no speakers or earphones built into the headset, so you’ll need to plug in your own. It’s a curious oversight, albeit not a ruinous one given the target audience – few early technology adopters are likely to be without a decent pair of headphones, after all. Whether it can crack the mainstream remains to be seen, but it will certainly be interesting to track the Gear VR’s progress – there’s undeniable appeal in a portable VR device, and as smartphone technology grows ever closer to console and PC quality, the future of Virtual Reality could well be mobile.