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VR On The Go: Hands On With Three Samsung Gear VR Demos

In early September, Samsung and Oculus announced a partnership to combine the high-end Android Note 4 with Oculus’ virtual reality technology. The Gear VR will be available later this year for developers and enthusiasts, and we had the opportunity to go hands-on at Oculus Connect in Los Angeles.

The device was paired with a Samsung headset and a branded mobile controller (similar to one I’ve tried from SteelSeries). The gamepad wasn’t necessary for navigation, and that’s the best part of using the Gear VR.

The head-mount has a touchpad and button on the right side that function similar to a mouse trackpad. Targeting in the Gear VR menu, a slick virtual representation of a familiar console dashboard, is easy. Head movement handles cursor positioning and a tap of the touchpad serves as a button press (you can also use the controller). The button that sits above the pad serves as back and pause functions.

I experienced three different demos, each of which offered an experience that was well-suited for virtual reality. The first was a basic VR demo that took me from floating in outer space to the top of a mountain. The most impressive moments though, were a scene sharing a dinner with a family from a seat at the table and watching an acrobatic performance from on stage.

The second of those was one of the most impactful VR moments I’ve had. As I turned to the left during the show, one of the actors looked right at me and mimed at me. I felt like he was interacting with me, and not the camera that was clearly sitting in that space when the moment was filmed. It was stunning, and I want to experience more of that type of media.

I also had the chance to spend time with two games. The first reminded me of crawling through a dungeon in the original The Legend of Zelda. As a little goblin, I took on skeletons, ghosts, and a giant tentacle with sword and bow, all while collecting gems and keys.

The combat was engaging and the third-person camera well positioned, but VR Quest isn’t without its problems. Targeting with the bow is handled via head tracking. The rooms are expansive enough that I often had to take my eyes off my character in order to target an enemy. This creates a disconnect for how we typically play third-person games. I’ll be interested to see how this changes before it’s final.

The second demo was for Land’s End, a game by Monument Valley developer Ustwo Games. It was a delightful experience that uses head tracking to handle point-to-point movement across a changing landscape of rocks, beaches, and pillars. Everything is handled with visual targeting, including the introductory switch puzzles. These raise and lower pieces of the landscape to navigate toward a Stargate-like portal at the end of the level.

Gear VR’s biggest drawback is that it doesn’t yet offer six degrees of freedom like the Oculus Rift DK2. That means you can’t lean into or around objects in the virtual space. After using and adoring the DK2, Gear VR feels like a step back in that regard. However, it might put quality VR in consumer hands for the first time, and that makes it something to keep on your radar and consider.

If you get a chance to try it as the “Innovator Edition” gets closer to shipping this fall, do so. The user experience and visual fidelty (the Note 4 has a 2560×1440 Quad HD screen with very minimal persistence) are impressive to say the least.

As a long-time iPhone user, I’ve rarely considered jumping ship. Gear VR might nudge me toward an Android phone and my first in-home virtual reality device. I’m not entirely sold yet, but my first experience absolutely exceeded my expectations.



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