This week Samsung’s Gear VR headset, “powered by” virtual reality technology from Facebook subsidiary Oculus VR, hit Australian stores at the very reasonable price of $ 249. The catch is you’ll need a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 handset to work it.
The Gear headset sports adjustable focus binoculars and a few simple controls: a touch panel, volume control, and a “go back” button. Fitted out with soft padding and adjustable straps, it fits comfortably on your head and you don’t notice the combined weight of the Note and headset at about half a kilo.
If you have particularly bad eyesight you’ll want to wear contacts because the headset won’t fit around your glasses.
Virtual reality headsets like this one from Samsung could transform the internet. Photo: Supplied
Simply click the Galaxy Note 4 into the front of the headset, and bingo – there’s your ticket to another world.
We let several staffers at The Age offices test it out, and first reactions were universally along the lines of “OMG, this thing is so cool!”.
Take Samsung’s health and safety advice though and make sure you’re not anywhere near sharp objects – or traffic – before you start. It is so immersive, all sense of spatial awareness in the real world melts away as soon as it’s on your head.
Hannah Francis helps crime reporter Rania Spooner adjust the Samsung Gear VR. Photo: Fairfax Media
A swivel chair works well as much of the content is 360 degree viewing. At the Oculus VR Store – accessible within the app – you can download content via Wi-Fi including filmed “experiences” and, for the moment, some basic games. A 16GB storage card comes in the box.
You can also watch a regular or 3D film on the Gear. The quality of 3D viewing is not quite as good as wearing 3D glasses at the cinema.
Some of the 360 degree content – filmed on special 360 degree cameras – is very compelling. Fly over Manhattan or take a gondola ride through Venice; nab a front row seat at Cirque du Soleil; hang out with a pack of lions or swim with sharks.
Samsung Gear VR headset. Photo: Supplied
It’s the closest many of us will ever get to actually experiencing these once-in-a-lifetime events.
Even something seemingly pedestrian – hanging out in a scruffy musician’s loft while he lights up a cigarette and plays the piano – takes on an almost magical feel, akin to what Harry Potter must’ve felt while wearing his invisibility cloak.
It’s a strange kind of voyeurism, though – you can’t touch anything, and when you crane your neck forwards to get a better look out the window, the perspective doesn’t change.
Some people have reported feeling a little queasy when using the Gear. I was fine for about half-an-hour; after that I felt some eye strain. That’s not really a surprise – the phone is essentially 10cm away from your face.
Naturally, the Gear will chew up the Note’s battery, but you’re unlikely to be using it for extended periods away from a power point.
Content is painfully slow to load compared to what many consumers will be used to, however – indeed when compared to using the Galaxy Note 4 itself, sans Gear. And like with 3D films, who knows how much content will be available in future.
And despite the Galaxy Note 4’s impressive AMOLED 2560p x 1440p resolution display, viewing content through the Gear is not a high-definition experience.
None of this really detracts from the impressiveness of the virtual reality experience, but it does make us wonder what we’ll be able to get our hands on in a few years’ time.
Whether or not the Gear goggles will have extended appeal beyond the wow-factor of the first use it remains to be seen.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy one of these for everyday use, but I’ll be watching very closely to see what comes next from both Samsung and other vendors, including Oculus itself, which promises a consumer version of its Rift headset any day now.
If you’re in the market for a new smartphone though, you could do much worse than the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 – and what’s an extra $ 249 after you’ve already forked out $ 949? Take the overall price down further by shopping around for a better deal on the Note, or get it on a long-term plan with a telco provider.
Samsung Gear VR
Dimensions: 198mm x 116mm x 90mm
Optical lens: 96° field of view, focal adjustment
Storage: 16GB MicroSD, included
Connectivity: via the Note
Samsung Galaxy Note 4
Dimensions: 153.5mm x 78.6mm x 8.5mm
Screen: 5.7-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED (2560p ×1440p)
Processor: 2.7GHz Quad-core
Connectivity: Micro SIM card and Wi-Fi