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Samsung Gear VR Hands-On: Virtual Reality Goes Mobile

Putting you inside everything from concerts and games to virtual tours, Samsung has raised the curtain on its Gear VR Innovator Edition headset. Powered by the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Oculus VR technology, the headset delivers an immersive 360-degree view by way of the phone's quad HD (2560 x 1440) display and 2.7-GHz Qualcomm quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor. After going eyes-on with the device before its launch later this fall, I can say that Samsung has succeeded in delivering an engaging experience in a mobile package.

Design

I’ve got to hand it to Samsung -- the company knows how to make a good-looking device. The majority of the headgear is comprised of glossy Frost White plastic with a shiny black visor occupying the front. A thick pair of adjustable head straps gives you room to adjust for a comfortable fit. Due to my massive bun, I had no other option but to hold the device to my face.

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The visually impaired among us may also have a bit of difficulty, as the headset did not accommodate my colleague's glasses. We do like there is a focus knob at the top of the headset to set the best view. There's a touchpad on the right side of the headset along with a back button and a volume rocker.

Placing the Galaxy Note 4 into the device is a snap, literally. You remove the front visor with a swift tug, revealing the rectangular cavity. A Samsung rep deftly placed the smartphone into the opening, securing it with a loud click. After, he replaced the visor and I was ready to begin my VR tour.

Experience

The demo kicked off with a Coldplay concert shot in 180 degrees, giving me a front stage seat to Chris Martin spastically jumping around the stage at 60 fps. When I wasn’t looking at the band, I took a peek behind me and saw that a large graphic occupied the rest of the space. The visual quality was fairly impressive, particularly when streams of star-shaped confetti spewed upward from the stage.

Next, I found myself in Avengers headquarters, where I could check out the Quinjet, Captain America’s vibranium shield and Loki’s scepter in a tour led by Jarvis. Directly behind me sat a 60-inch curved Samsung TV. Using the touchpad, I selected the glowing Iron Man helmet on the display using the touchpad.

The room turned blue, and when I checked out the Quinjet again, I could see the vehicle’s schematics. The room quickly turned from a calm cerulean to a flashing red with Jarvis informing me that a intruder was detected, concluding this part of the demo.

From there, I was whisked away to an aerial view of New York City. When I looked up, I saw the body and the whirring blades of the helicopter transporting me. Below was the Empire State Building and surrounding buildings, which were still impressive even this far up.

The scene changed to the beautiful canals of Venice, to large desolate icebergs, to a lush green savannah complete with lions. My favorite part of the tour was watching a heard of wild horses gallop below, manes flowing like some unearthly liquid.

Last but not least, I took a spin through a video game demo, a space shooter that tasks the player with using head movements to aim and the touchpad to shoot. You'll best experience this fun game in a chair that rotates, as enemies come from all sides.

Display

Although the Gear VR uses the Note 4’s bright, crisp display to play video, it wasn’t as crisp as expected for a 2560 x 1400 panel. That’s not to say it wasn’t good. In fact, the visuals are comparable to the latest iteration of Oculus Rift (DK2). That's not surprising, because Oculus is currently using the Note 3 display in the latest iteration of the Rift. The screen did look noticeably better than Sony’s Project Morpheus headset.

The demos were sharp enough to allow me to read text throughout and make out finer details like individual blades of grass. Colors such as greens, blues and browns were particularly vivid, as witnessed as a herd of giraffes ran across the dusty savannah.

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Despite being shifted to a number of angles, I never experienced any vertigo, which is a common complaint for a small segment of virtual reality users. Samsung claims that the headset has less than 20 milliseconds of lag. While this seemed true of the demos I interacted with, I would like to test the headset in a gaming environment more fast-paced action.

Audio

The Gear VR's audio will be provided though the Galaxy Note 4 via 3D Spatial Sound, which will require use of a pair of headphones. For better or worse, I could hear the Coldplay concert amidst the audience applause. Jarvis’ sardonic delivery was crisp and clear over the din of the busy show floor. 

Partners/Content

In addition to Oculus Rift, Samsung has partnered with Marvel, IMAX and Dreamworks VR for content and apps, to name a few. When the Innovator Edition of the Gear VR launches, it will provide access to some of IMAX's documentaries, over 100,000 HD videos courtesy of Vevo and M-GO Advanced, an interactive movie and and TV content service.

But it wouldn't be VR without some sort of gaming presence, so Samsung teamed with mobile social gaming platform DeNA to bring Protocol Zero to the Gear VR. Players will infiltrate enemy lines using a host of resources, including thermal, night and X-ray vision. While I've watched Oculus Rift slowly integrate uses outside of gaming (concerts, movies, virtual tours), Samsung looks to be hitting the ground running with a cache of compelling content. Whether or not Samsung (or any other VR company) will have enough content to keep the platform viable is anyone's guess.

Bottom Line

Powered by a Galaxy Note 4, Samsung's Gear VR does something that the leading competitors have yet to do -- create a truly mobile virtual reality experience. The headset is comfortable to wear and fairly easy to set up, but I'd like to see Samsung bundle a real gaming controller. Best of all, when you're done with your virtual reality sesssion, you can go back to making calls and jotting down reminders on the Note 4. Depending on the price the company and its carrier partners set when the product officially launches, the Gear VR could go from being a dark horse in the VR race to the one to beat.