Previously, to select items, buttons and menu choices in Samsung Gear VR, you had two choices: move your head and the virtual pointer floating in front of you until your gaze was locked on your selection, or tap the physical buttons and touch pad on the side of the Gear VR headset.
The first choice wasn’t bad. The second option was terrible. You didn’t always know what you were pressing and, if you had to do enough of it, it could result in arm fatigue. To be fair, Oculus Rift, from Gear VR co-developer Oculus, didn’t originally offer controllers, either. Now they have Oculus Touch and the world seems so much brighter.
The same is true with the new Gear VR controller.
I tested the new Gear VR headset and controller with a new Samsung Galaxy S8+. I’ve always been impressed with Samsung’s smartphone-powered VR solution. From the very first headset that used a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 to power it (the headset adds motion tracking and proximity sensors), the imagery, immersion and responsiveness have been captivating.
Last year, Samsung introduced an updated Gear VR headset as the perfect companion for the freshly minted, and now dearly-departed, Note7. Lighter and with a wider-field of view, the updated Gear VR took a good VR experience and made it better.
The headset that ships with the new controller is virtually unchanged, but because most of its power is derived from the phone, it gains the benefit of the Samsung Galaxy S8+’s powerful Snapdragon Octa core CPU and spectacular Super AMOLED screen technology.
As with most things Samsung and Android, the Gear VR experience is still not plug and play. Before you can enjoy a virtual reality experience, there’s a bunch of software to install. Samsung has its Gear VR software, drivers and services and then Oculus has it software, as well. You’ll also be encouraged to sign up for Oculus. I did this through my Facebook account (Facebook owns Oculus), but it wasn’t easy. There’s also a fair amount of content to buy in the Oculus Home system, so you’ll want to register a credit card with it. Buying new VR content is as easy as looking at something, pressing a button and entering your pin code on a virtual number pad. VR apps tend to be more expensive than run-of-the-mill smartphone apps.
The phone also told me I had to change the phone resolution before using it with the Gear VR. For some reason, my test Samsung Galaxy S8+ was set to FHD+ (2220×1080) instead of the full WQHD+ resolution of 2960×1440.
I’m pleased to say you don’t have to remove your glasses to use the Gear VR. I put it on, adjusted the head straps and then used the wheel just over the bridge of my nose to adjust the focus.
The headset is, at approximately 0.75 lbs., fairly light and there is padding around the area that rests on your face, but I could still feel a bit of pressure after long VR sessions. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but you don’t ever quite forget that you’re wearing a VR headset. It might feel a bit lighter with a smaller phone like the 5.8-inch Galaxy S8 or tinier S7.
Getting a handle on it
With all that done, the phone will, if it’s unlocked, automatically switch to VR mode when you plug it into the headset. Gear VR ships with adapters for micro USB Galaxy phones and the USB port on the new Galaxy S8 and S8+. It also supports the Galaxy S7, S7 edge, Note6, S6 edge+, S6, and S6 edge. The phone holder also adjusts for different sized phones. To enhance my level of immersion, Samsung sent me a pair Level Bluetooth headphones. They cost approximately $139, which is more than the headset itself.
The new Gear VR controller needs two AAA batteries to work and connects to the phone via Bluetooth. It only took a moment for the phone to find the controller and then a virtual version of it appeared floating in front of my face. With three-degrees of freedom (like the controller for Google Daydream) it accurately tracked my hand movements (up, down, side-to-side, but not closer or further away from my body) and I found I could use it to point at something on the VR home screen and press the trigger on the front of the controller to select it. I did find it a little odd that the controller didn’t appear as a virtual version of your hand. I mean, why does the controller have to appear in my alien landscape?
However, on the addictive puzzle game Rangi, the controller was replaced with a magical staff. The key is programmers developing apps that smartly build the controller in as a contextual presence.
There are times when the controller disappears. On Night Sky, for example, I just used the controller as a pointer and didn’t even have to hit a button to connect stars and create unusual constellations. On a virtual roller coaster ride, my virtual hands were holding onto the virtual rail in front of me, but I had no control over them. In this case, the controller still works—I can use Home, Back and volume — but doesn’t appear at all in the virtual reality scene.
The controller also has a large, round touch pad on top that’s gesture sensitive so it can be used as a virtual mouse on some VR apps like the integrated Web browser, where I used it to scroll up and down. It’s also a large button. There are also back and home buttons and a volume rocker.
It’s such a pleasure, though, to use the controller in VR. It’s great on interfaces and was especially helpful when I played HEX. I still targeted with my eyes, but shot with my finger.
Sometimes the Gear VR controller got a little out of sync with its virtual self. To fix that, I positioned the controller in front of me and held down the home button for a few seconds.
Oddly, the controller appeared far less integrated in the Samsung VR software experience. Those apps, which did not run as smoothly as those in the Oculus home environment, didn’t even recognize the position of the controller, just my button presses and gestures on the touch pad.
Samsung created a killer bundle for those pre-ordering the Samsung Galaxy S8 or S8+, throwing in the Gear VR headset and controller for free. Even without the bundle, $99for the headset and controller is a small price to pay for a world of immersive, entertaining and engaging virtual reality.
Samsung Gear VR with Controller
Excellent companion for the Samsung Galaxy S8+ • Smart, easy-to use controller that instantly improves the Gear VR experience
Samsung VR software is out of step with Oculus
The Bottom Line
If you own a modern Samsung Galaxy phone, this is the VR gear for you.