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Samsung Gear VR: Is it worth the cost to visit virtual reality?

Would you pass up the opportunity to get a free virtual reality headset?

I couldn’t.

Not long ago, I got my brand new Samsung Gear VR, for free, as part of a promotion for the Galaxy S7. It took several months to arrive, but when it did, I felt the need to document the occasion with an unboxing video.

The Gear VR really is cool. But it isn’t perfect.

The good

You do feel as if you’re in the virtual world. At one point I was “flying” through space as part of the intro to a game. When the flying stopped I found myself in front of “screens” or menu options to play the game. The scenery around those screens was amazing so I decided to look around – and I immediately put my hands out to stop my fall.

Of course, I wasn’t really falling. But when I turned my head to see what was around me I found I was floating high above the floor. And just for a second believed I would fall. Since I was sitting on the floor already, it didn’t take long for my brain to accept I wasn’t falling.

There are many apps. The free promotion came with a code to download six free apps. And I downloaded those straightaway. My initial favourite was Star Chart which lets you travel the solar system and see the planets up close. As of this writing there are about 120 games under the “Games” menu. There are many more that offer experiences, and access to 360 degree videos.

The bad

It’s hard to ignore the pixels. While the resolution of the S7 is quite good when you’re holding it in your hand, there are some issues when it’s so close to your face. It isn’t noticeable in every app, but in some you can see a pattern on the screen.

At first I thought it might be the screen cover I had on the phone (it was a cheap one with glare protection). So I took that off, but the pixels were still there. If you research the resolution of the phone you’ll find a lot of arguments back and forth about how good it is compared to other phones. But the truth is, none of it matters too much when it’s two inches from your face.

Eventually, it does get uncomfortable. It’s recommended to build up your VR time so your body and mind get used to it slowly. But in all honesty, having a big headset smashed into my face isn’t comfortable. It’s easy to ignore for a while with an engaging app, but at some point it has to come off. Also the lenses tend to fog, which makes it harder for your eyes to adjust.

Nit-picks

You have to take the case off your phone. My son has a very slim plastic case on his S7. It won’t fit into the headset with it on. Since the case is so snug, getting it off takes some effort. Getting it back on takes some too.

It makes my eyes wonky. While writing this blog I felt the need to test it out again to make sure my notes were accurate. Of course, I got distracted while re-evaluating a game and spent about 20 minutes playing Smash Hit. When I took off the headset, my eyes couldn’t focus on the words on my monitor. It took a few minutes to feel normal again.

Things to know

The documentation recommends that the Gear VR be used only by people aged 13 or older. Younger than that and it may damage their eyes because they are still developing. Since the Galaxy S7 is my son’s phone, and he’s almost 11, he’s quite distressed by that fact. But I do let him use it, just a few minutes a day, a couple times a week. If you have younger children you’ll have to decide whether or not it’s suitable for them, or for how long.

Another important fact is that the device gets very hot. Well, technically the mobile gets hot. Even a 15-minute session will make it uncomfortable to touch to remove it. But it cools down quickly if you just let it sit unused.

If you plan to have an extended session, you may want to research how to keep it cool. I found videos and instructions on how to build cooling units that sit on the headset. I would think they’d make it even more uncomfortable, but at least it will be cool!

Verdict

I love playing with the Gear VR. I’m happy we have one. But if it hadn’t been free, I don’t think I would have spent the money to buy one. Not now at least. While I see tremendous possibility in the format, there are too many detractors with this first consumer version of the Gear VR.

I’ve read reviews of other VR devices like the Oculus Rift and Playstation VR (not yet released, but sold out) that say they are much better all around. Of course, they each cost five times what the Gear VR cost (not including the cost of the mobile phone it requires).

The next generation of the Gear VR may provide significant improvement while still keeping costs low. But if you don’t want to wait, look for a store where you can test one out. You may find the experience is amazing enough as it is.

Oliver Burt

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