If there’s an iconic image to have come out of this year’s MWC in Barcelona, it’s the one of Mark Zuckerberg and his appearance at Samsung Galaxy S7 launch. You can see Zuckerberg walking in, his familiar grey t-shirt and blue jeans, while the entire audience has Gear VR headsets on, presumably unaware that the Facebook CEO has just walked in. Some have rightly called it an apt metaphor for our future, perhaps a dystopic one where humans are glued to their virtual reality sets. Fears of a warped future aside, VR was the big highlight of the conference, as we’ve seen and noted in some of our earlier articles.
The Gear VR headset by Samsung and powered by Facebook-owned Oculus is just one tool for making this VR-obsessed future a reality. Samsung has introduced the headset in India at a price of Rs 8,200, and it’s compatible with all the top-end Galaxy phones, from S6 onwards including the Note 5.
Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has himself admitted that the future of VR is mobile, mostly because it is not as cumbersome as PC-based VR with its burden of wires, etc. And pretty much every top-end smartphone manufacturer is ensuring that their devices are VR-ready. Apparently even Apple has a secret virtual reality unit working on its own headset.
So is the Gear VR experience worth it? We’ve tried the Gear VR for sometime now, and here is what we thought.
Set-up, ease of use
For starters, this is meant (only) for those who have a high-end Galaxy smartphone. So if you don’t have a compatible phone, don’t even consider buying. Before getting ready to take the virtual plunge, download the Oculus VR app on your smartphone, set up an Oculus account and download some apps, videos, etc. It’s better this way, or else you’ll find yourself downloading videos, while you have the headset on and that’s really boring and likely to cause a headache.
In my case, I found the Netflix app, a Jurassic World Video, Cirque De Soleil. There are quite a few paid apps; after all shooting and creating VR style content is not cheap, so expect more of that. There are also Oculus 360 videos, photos, some of which are truly stunning.
Once you’re set-up with the app, put the smartphone inside the Gear VR headset (there’s a micro-USB port within to plug the device in). Make sure the device is unlocked when plugging it in and once the headset is on, you’re ready to go. I, however, kept struggling as I tried to put the cover back on after attaching the device. Not once, not twice, every single time. But that aside, once I had put on the Gear VR headset, it’s a totally different experience.
A quick side-note: Since I wear glasses, I can’t actually use these with my spectacles on. The Gear VR headset specifically warns against doing that, and recommends using contact lens. But of course, I’m too lazy to put on contacts, just for VR, so I just used these without specs.
To navigate, there’s a touchpad on the side with a back button on the top. Early on I kept fumbling around, but eventually I got the knack of it and found myself navigating this like a pro.
What’s the experience like
Sure it’s awe-inspiring, and a little freaky at the same time. I’ve seen the Cirque De Soleil, in fact the exact show that’s on the VR headset in real-life. When you watch it in VR, it’s a whole new view. For starters, you’re right there, not in the seats where the audience is supposed to be, but in the middle of the action. You have to look to watch the acrobats performing, the clowns are right next to you and it’s fascinating, but also a little unnerving. Of course a lot of people in our office, who tried it out, went all awww and woooow, which is not surprising.
The Netflix app took sometime to work, but once it did, it worked just fine without any hiccups. The setting of the Netflix app, where you’re sitting on a red sofa (seriously kept creeping me out) with the screen in front of you, makes for great design and really feels like the full VR experience. But can you binge watch an entire Netflix series? I don’t think so, at least not without your head hurting after some point.
The 360 VR photos are truly stunning and worth-watching. Some of these have places, which I’ll probably never visit, and the shots are meant to mesmerise; I specifically kept going back to the desert with the starry sky, because I know it’s something I’ll never really experience in real life.
There are also shots of imagined VR worlds, and they make for a terrifying experience. Terrifying, not because it scared me, but because it shows the power of VR, to create something that doesn’t really exist, and yet make you feel that it is really. I was almost ready to step on the bridge of one of these VR worlds. And that’s really the power of VR.
So is it all perfect?
Of course not. You can’t wear the headset for long periods, and yes it does give a headache. For the videos, you need high speed Internet access (which explains why Facebook Zuckerberg is keen on improving Internet connectivity across the world).
There were times when the images and videos would take time to load, or it would fail and yes at one point, the device wasn’t reflecting anything. And yes there were times, when I took out the phone to find it had heated up.
But honestly, these were what I call minor hiccups. Once the VR show is on, nothing else matters. And that’s also a problem. In the middle of the dinosaur video, I started moving around (which is not recommended), because well I wanted to avoid the dinosaur. Found myself right next to the door, two feet away from bed. So yeah, if you get too immersed into the whole virtual scene, you might just find yourself getting hurt in real life.
Worth a buy?
As a device, the Gear VR is pretty perfect. And Oculus has some truly stunning VR-related content to offer. Of course, whether you should buy this depends a lot on whether you see any use for VR in your life.
A lot of us will ask: How important will VR be in the future? Tech companies argue immensely so, and perhaps they are right. It is surreal experience, capable of transcending the mundane, boring world that is our existence. VR, I would say, is better than being stuck to that dull smartphone screen, scrolling up and down endlessly on one or two apps. It’s a means to escape, at the end of the day and that’s exactly what the Gear VR offers.