Samsung’s Gear VR offers a cheap way into the virtual world

There’s a deep roar as every second more than 100 cubic metres of water flows down the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland. There’s mist in the air and furious eddies and foam where the water cascades down.

It’s an impressive sight you can now experience from the comfort of your armchair using Samsung’s Gear VR, a combination of a smartphone and a virtual reality (VR) headset.

2016 will be the year of VR, or at least so the nascent industry believes. In the race between Oculus, HTC and Sony to get the first headset to market, Samsung in alliance with Oculus has its nose ahead. While the competition is offering complete systems with their own screens, in the case of the Gear VR, a Samsung smartphone functions as the screen and processor.

The Gear VR costs around 100 euros (109 dollars) and resembles an oversized pair of ski goggles. This headset has several sensors, two lenses, a touchpad and various switches.

Installation is easy. The latest version works with Samsung’s Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ and Note 5. The smartphone snaps into the headset and is connected by USB port. Then the necessary software is downloaded and access to the Oculus Store set up - this is where the content is to be found, ranging from VR movies and games to 360-degree photos and videos.

This test used the Galaxy S6 Edge+ which features a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels - fairly high definition for a smartphone. The testers travelled through the human bloodstream, dived through reefs full of colourful fish, floated over Iceland and fought swarms of star-fighters in space.

The headset also has a practical use: you can explore holiday destinations before you actually go there.

The VR experience is very positive: Once you have the headset on, you feel like you’re immersed in another world - even while all you’re doing is spinning on an office chair. In front, behind, up and down - everywhere there’s something to be discovered. As well, the browser that comes with the device allows you to surf the net and stream movies with the Netflix app.

In VR mode, half of the screen is used by each eye so the resolution drops to 1280 x 1440 pixels. Powerful magnification by the lenses can make the image pixellated and the edges seem slightly blurred.

The device is controlled by head movements or the small touchpad on the edge of the headset - which can lead to annoying incorrect inputs. Another issue is the weight. The combined headset and S6 Edge+ weighs around 450 grams. The snug fit and padding are fine at the beginning, but after a few minutes the weight on the face starts to be noticeable. In addition, heat builds up during prolonged use.

Fortunately, the motion sickness or nausea that some people used to experience when using VR headsets is no longer as big an issue as before and mostly occurs during abrupt movements such as running upstairs or when events occur on the edge of the visual field.

The conclusion: Anyone who already owns a flagship Samsung smartphone can cheaply and easily turn it into an entertaining VR headset using the VR Gear device. The videos, panoramic photos and games offered by the Oculus Store are fun and there’s already an extensive offering of apps, many of them free.

Of course if you don’t already own a Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or Note 5, it’s a different matter. Depending on the model, these cost between 550 and 1,000 euros (up to 1,100 dollars).

Last update: Wed, 06/01/2016 - 12:55
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