I've been lucky enough to have had some pretty unique VR experiences. In fact, my perspective is a bit warped (see what I did there?). Compared to other VR early adopters, I suspect that I'm more jaded by "normal" VR than most. By "normal" VR, I mean seated VR (like the Oculus Rift) that isn't decoupled and doesn't use motion controls. My experiences with the Turris VR chair have led me to believe that VR needs to be more than just a screen strapped to your face before it's worth getting excited about.
That makes me a less-than-ideal candidate to review Samsung's Gear VR because it is, quite literally, just a mechanism for strapping a screen to your face. Luckily for you, that doesn't mean that this review is going to be one big rant—there's a twist. To really put this headset to the test, I was able to get my hands on nine Samsung Gear VRs along with nine Galaxy S6s to go with them. With all that hardware on hand, I did what anyone in that position would do. I threw a VR party to find out what a group of young VR rookies thought of the experience.
VR Minecraft Party - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Every good party needs a theme, and getting everybody inside the recently released Minecraft Gear VR Edition was the perfect candidate for ours. It would be our third time hosting a Minecraft-themed party for more or less the same group of kids, so I knew it stood as good a chance of holding everyone's attention long enough to gather impressions as anything. You can't play VR Minecraft without a controller, and since I didn't have enough of the things to go around to begin with, I needed to buy something in bulk that wouldn't break the bank. I chose the Moga Hero Power for the job based on solid user reviews and its $20 price tag.
So that's the setup. Not including the phone, all three components that make this experiment possible will be discussed individually and then as a system.
Samsung Gear VR
The Gear VR is the most critical of the three elements when it comes to experiencing mobile VR. This pair of goggles is typical of the mobile VR experience—several companies have released similar devices that accept a phone and turn it into a VR client. If you're generally familiar with the concept of VR—which I'm assuming you are—it's also a pretty simple part of the equation to explain. The Gear VR works with Samsung Galaxy phones from the Galaxy Note 5 on. Spring-loaded tabs in the front of the device align the different models of phones so that they are properly centered. One of the Gear VR's retention clips has a USB connector that plugs into the phone, while the clip on the other side folds and slides to secure it in place.
With the phone in place, you can adjust the focus by using the dial on the top of the Gear VR. The dial slides the phone mount forward and backward to change the distance of the screen from the lenses in the Gear VR. Unlike the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, the Gear VR doesn't offer interpupillary distance adjustments (the distance between lens centers). In my experience, the limited adjustments made it impossible to bring the entire image into perfect focus for everybody who tried on the Gear VR.
The underside of the headset has a Micro-USB port for providing pass-though power to the phone. At least for the Samsung Galaxy S6s I used, the phones will run off power provided through this port during a VR session. However, they will not charge the battery at the same time, presumably to reduce heat generation. There's also a back button and directional pad of sorts on the side of the headset. They're used for navigating menus in VR, but not much else.
Inside the Gear VR there's a light sensor to detect if you have your face in the headset or not. When you're not using the headset, the phone can go to sleep and any externally connected power can start to charge the battery. Unfortunately, the location of the light sensor makes it prone to mistaking the top head strap on the device for your face. When you set the Gear VR down, the head strap is obliged by gravity to come to a rest right in front of the sensor. Whoops.
The straps themselves are elastic with hook-and-loop fasteners to offer size adjustments. There's not much else to say about them—they work well in practice. The pad that separates your face from the plastic body of the Gear VR is attached with hook-and-loop material, as well, so it can be easily removed and cleaned. Overall, the Gear VR is reasonably comfortable to wear and offers enough adjustments to fit well for most users (including those with glasses).
But what about Oculus?
In addition to Samsung, the Gear VR also carries Oculus branding. That's because Oculus helped with the motion-tracking hardware and optics built into the headset. It's also because the Gear VR is a platform for Oculus Home. Honestly, Oculus Home isn't much to talk about, even if you haven't seen a VR storefront before. Just picture PlayStation Home, Steam Big Picture Mode, or any other app store and wrap it around your entire field of view.
There's a non-VR component to Oculus Home, as well. The app provides a launcher that's like a Gear VR-specific app store. This is the interface you'll likely purchase, browse, and launch most of your games from. When you launch a VR app with the phone out of the Gear VR, the app will tell you to put the phone into the goggles. Once the phone is in place, it launches directly into the app. If you quit the app with the headset on, the system falls back to the VR version of Oculus Home. When you remove your phone from the headset, it automatically closes the VR interface. Overall, Oculus Home manages the transition between VR and meatspace smoothly.