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A Look Back at Using Samsung’s Gear VR in 2016

2016 has been a big one for mobile VR but it didn’t start out promising. For the last couple years, Google Cardboard has been the only bet in town. It was Samsung, partnering with Facebook’s Oculus, who launched a better version of mobile virtual reality with Gear VR in the fall of 2015 to great reviews but not much consumer excitement. It wasn’t until March of 2016 with the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 series that would bring virtual reality to the masses, and with it, better content and experiences. I spent most of 2016 using the Galaxy S7 with Gear VR and the Gear 360 camera and using them to explore as much of the content and software available to see what mobile VR was capable of and where it fell short. Here are a few of my observations after using Samsung’s Gear VR system this year.

Samsung

It’s surprisingly well built.

On the first day of SXSW, I purchased the Samsung S7 and a Gear VR headset. After going through the usual new smartphone setup process I was ready to try mobile VR. This wouldn’t be my first time with Gear VR or mobile VR but it was the first time that I was going to be able to spend an exteneded amount of time experiencing it at my own pace. The headset fit perfectly and the controls were easy to use, once you knew how to use them (more on that later). It felt solidwhich could not be said for any version of Google Cardboard. Countless times it was stuffed into a suitcase or backpack and has never given me any issues. After 9 months of use my original Gear VR headset is still performing as well as it did on day one even after dozens of friends, coworkers, and bystanders have tried it. I am honestly surprised it held up so well for as much use (and abuse) it was put through.

There are a few flaws, however. The first is that if Galaxy S7 overheats you may have to temporarily stop using it to let it cool down. This happens infrequently and usually is caused by heavy use, so it has not been much a concern and more of the occasional annoyance. The second is that it does not come with a controller. Tapping on the side of the headset becomes tedious after awhile and purchased am Android-compatible game controller first chance I got. Fogging of the lenses of the headset is a bit of an issue at times, especially if using outdoors on a humid day. I would like to see better venting in a future version as it can get a little warm while wearing it.

The Oculus software is not intuitive. Not one bit. 

The biggest obstacle to mobile VR is the software interface that runs it. Oculus’ Gear VR is a good example of an interface that seems easy but has a rather significant learning curve. It isn’t user-friendly or intuitive and can become frustrating for someone not willing to learn its quirks. Sometimes shifting my body position would throw the visual orientation of what was being seen in Gear VR, making it seem like I was on my side or upside-down. There is an “easy” fix for it once you learn how to access the settings menu, but to the new user, it can become so frustrating that you will not put the headset on again. This is most noticeable when you pass a headset around to other people and one person can’t get it to work. I’ve had more than a handful of people pull off the Gear VR angrily because they could not get it to work. The point of virtual reality is to make you believe you’re somewhere else but when you are constantly negotiating how to get past a blank screen or progress past a menu it works against that goal. Over the last year, some subtle improvements have been made but nothing to really make it seamless for a user to put the headset on and go directly to content. Even today I find myself frustrated and I would consider myself somewhat an expert at how Oculus’ mobile VR works. If you put the time in to learn how it works you, will be rewarded, usually.

Great VR apps are diamonds in the rough.

The library of software that you can download from the Oculus Store for Gear VR is expanding every day. Just like when Apple launched the App Store for iPhone there are few truly great apps hidden amongst a lot of garbage. This is not because developers are making garbage software but that not many know how to make a great VR experience and it shows. I found that gaming is not the strongest draw for me with Gear VR. Most games work of the move, look around, shot, and repeat model which gets boring rather quickly (and I love first-person shooters on consoles). Playing virtual pinball has been one of my favorite experiences on Gear VR so far because it made me feel like I was actually playing a pinball machine. It drew me in. I also have spent some time in the virtual chat world of Altspace VR. This is a work-in-progress app that brings users of multiple VR formats together in one massive virtual world. I’ve watched virtual live performances from Reggie Watts to playing a VR version of Cards Against Humanity. It’s not the world of Ready Player One by any means but it’s one of the better apps available when it doesn;t get too much like the AOL/Yahoo chat rooms from internet days past. The good thing is the mobile VR apps are getting better, most of them are free, and there is a variety of different genres to choose from. Once developers understand how to make better VR experiences, the better it will be for users. But right now where Gear VR really shines is with video, picture, and live broadcast applications.

Oculus Store on Gear VR

 Watching live broadcast of sports and events rules!

The NCAA Final Four had its own app on Gear VR and did real-time live VR broadcasts of the semi-final and championship games. There were a few hiccups for the semi-finals but the championship broadcast was phenomenal. You had the best seat in the house and to watch the intense turn of events in 3D live made the game that much more exciting. In May NBC simulcast the Kentucky Derby in VR which has ruined me from now on because if I can’t watch it in VR then I need to be there. The NBA selected several games to simulcast also in VR, and the NFL is creating special programming for an official VR channel. If I have the option of watching a sporting event in VR or my TV I will always choose VR in the future. Imagine the Super Bowl in VR! I spent a lot of time watching sports on my Gear VR this year because it was better than on my TV. The VR broadcasts were not exclusive to sports. Austin City Limits Festival was also doing live VR broadcasts of several of the artists to perform there this year. Musical performances didn’t carry the same WOW factor as sporting events but it was better than watching a normally recorded performance on YouTube. The content provided this year proves the future holds a lot of promise for live events in VR.

Netflix and chill is best on Gear VR.

Countless hours have been spent with Netflix on Gear VR. First movie watched and I was hooked. No distractions from the outside world. I would lay down, put my headphones on, and suddenly I had a theater size screen before my eyes to enjoy the film of my choosing. Now keep in mind, it’s not making a VR version of the movie, it just provides a portable theater experience. The best part of it is I am totally focused on what I am watching as I can’t look at my phone or anything else. I notice more of what is going on. Rewatching classics favorites is like seeing them again for the first time. When Stranger Things was released this summer I decided to watch the entire series wearing the headset. Let’s just say there were a couple sleepless nights and it was worth it. I am hoping more providers bring their streaming services to Gear VR. There are a few apps provided by Samsung and Oculus that allow you to view video and photo content in the same fashion and I’ve used them to show off the Gear VR to first-time users (like riding a Six Flags roller coaster in VR). 360 video and photos have been some of the more compelling uses for mobile VR and the apps for them do it very well.

Samsung Gear VR Roller Coaster Simulation

Creating 360 experiences to share is incredible.

In the beginning of 2016, YouTuber Casey Neistat partnered with Samsung to show off the upcoming Gear 360 camera and what it could do. This is what made me want a Gear VR in the first place. I could not wait to have the ability to be able to take 360 photos and videos to share experiences with others! After a few months of delays, I was able to get one of the first ones from Samsung at Vidcon last June. I learned a lot about creating content in 360 and have had a lot of fun experimenting with both photos and videos because I could view them moments after capturing them. Recently I have been able to share a concert with someone that couldn’t go and shown the view from the Empire State Building to someone who has never to been to New York.

The Gear 360 camera has given me the power to take an experience and share it without needing a computer and special software. Moments after capturing a photo or a short video clip I can watch it in VR or post it to Facebook for others to see. Now as much as I love using the Gear 360 it does have its quirks as a first-gen camera but it gets easier to use once you get the hang of it. 360 photos are definitely its strong point as video can become a bit of chore if you want to edit multiple clips together. You also have to unlearn a lot of what you know about composition when taking a photo or video as you need to capture it in such a way because it puts the viewer’s eyes in the same position that you put the camera. It’s worth taking the time to practice with before using it to capture a birthday or special event. Trust me.

Some final thoughts on my year with Gear VR.

I’ve enjoyed the mobile version of Oculus on Samsung’s Gear VR immensely this year and it has me excited for what is to come. I am hoping for a Gear VR version of Facebook and Instagram soon. This surprises me that there is not one already. Imagine being able to visualize your Instagram feed and choosing the photos you want to take a closer look at. Another feature that is missing is voice control. Let me say play, pause, etc to control my Netflix and let me speak commands to other apps. Let’s start with “Gear VR, reorient my view” for the occasional perspective drift. Each week Oculus is improving the Gear VR software and it’s getting better with each update. My biggest concern is will developers make apps that will keep people interested in mobile VR. Oculus’ Gear VR has had no real competition in the mobile VR space until now with the release of Google’s Daydream. Perhaps with another format we will see some improvements to the overall epxerience that will make the Gear VR system a little more user friendly (imagine your grandparents using it WITHOUT your help). This year has been a lot fun experimenting with Gear VR and with the promise of improvements with the upcoming Galaxy S8 it looks like 2017 is going to be even better!

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