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.
This animation is sure to turn some heads.
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.
Hauling these in my trunk made me feel cooler than it should have.
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.
The Moga Hero Power controller
I didn’t have a supply of controllers to match all the Gear VRs I borrowed for the party. Picking a decent, affordable controller out of the mess of options available online was a bit daunting. Luckily, Oculus has a list of supported controllers tucked away in an FAQ, and it helped me narrow my search significantly. It turns out that only a few brands and models of controller are officially supported by the Gear VR. The Moga Pro Power was on the list, but I couldn’t justify buying half a dozen of them at $50 a pop. Instead, I took a chance and picked up the Pro Power’s little brother, the $20 Moga Hero Power.
The surprise, uh, ‘hero’ of the review.
The gamble paid off. The Hero turned in what I can only presume is the same flawless performance that got the Pro on Oculus’ officially-supported roster. The Hero has a flip-out phone holder that wasn’t necessary for my purposes, but I did check that it’s sturdy and holds phones securely for non-VR gaming. The USB charging port for the controller is located under the phone holder, as is the combined power and mode switch. For use with the Galaxy S6 and other modern phones, that switch should be set to “B” for Bluetooth. That setting automatically puts the controller into discovery mode, and it was a snap to pair it with the Galaxy S6. Unlike some older controller models, there is no need for additional software to make the Hero work.
There’s also a full size USB port under the controller. The Hero comes with two Micro-USB cables and one of them, only a few inches long, is intended to be used with this port so it can charge your phone while you are playing. The internal battery in the Hero is just 1800 mAh. That’s pretty respectable for a Bluetooth controller, but I was skeptical that it would be much help extending gaming sessions. I did some quick testing using a USB multimeter and confirmed my suspicions.
My PortaPow may not be an expensive, finely-calibrated instrument, but I don’t think it’s a fluke that all of the controllers I tested fell a bit short of supplying 5V to the phones I plugged in. That lead to a less than impressive 0.42A output, not quite the 0.5A trickle charge you’d expect from an old USB port and well below the full-speed 2.5 Amps I’d expect from a quality USB battery pack. Still, it’s not a bad perk to have if you’re in a pinch. Just don’t expect it to charge the average phone by more than 25% or so.
The controller itself feels well built. It’s heavier than you’d expect, and there’s essentially no give or creak when you try to flex it. The buttons are located in the same position as buttons on an Xbox controller, but the entire layout is shrunken just a little bit. The buttons and thumb sticks feel good, and I found them to be appropriately responsive. I didn’t feel like it ever missed a click. The triggers on the front are a little squishy, but they get the job done nonetheless. Compared to the Nyko Playpad Pro, another $20 controller we had on hand, I prefer everything about the Hero except for its triggers.
As the new owner of a bunch of these things, I wanted to see how the Moga Hero Power fared as a PC controller, as well. It paired over Bluetooth as a “Moga 2 HID” and showed up in Windows’ game-controller settings as an “Android Controller Gen-2(ACC).” All of the buttons on the controller worked in Windows except for the trigger buttons—a pretty big problem for normal use. Windows sees the Hero as a Direct Input device, as well, so most games won’t work with it natively.
This configuration worked pretty well. Too bad about the trigger buttons though.
That problem can be easily worked around by using a controller emulator. I used TocaEdit Xbox 360 Controller Emulator for my testing. I mapped the missing trigger inputs to the right and left bumpers before mapping those bumpers to the click of the analog sticks. It’s not a perfect solution, but it worked quite well in Rocket League where the bumpers are only used for menu navigation. Overall, I’d rather use an Xbox 360 controller, primarily due to overall size, but the Hero should still make a nice addition to my laptop bag. Now I just have to figure out what to do with the remaining eight…
Jumping into Minecraft VR Edition
John Carmack himself would probably recommend Minecraft VR Edition as one of the best ways to introduce kids to VR. He calls it “the best thing to come out on Oculus,” after all, and a lot of kids seem to think Minecraft is pretty okay, too. I don’t think Minecraft needs further introduction, but there are some specifics about the VR Edition that are worth mentioning. For starters, it’s based on, and has the same features as, the Pocket Edition of Minecraft for phones and tablets. That also makes it the same as the Windows 10 Edition beta version of the game. All of those versions are cross-platform multiplayer compatible, something we took full advantage of to pull off our party. Cross-platform play with consoles is coming soon.
Initial impressions from loading up Minecraft in VR are pretty smile-inducing. The render distance isn’t very distant, but otherwise everything looks great. A game like Minecraft and its low resolution textures is the perfect fit for the highly magnified pixels that come with VR headsets. Once you’re strapped in, the scale of the Minecraft world will hit you right away, Minecraft blocks are supposed to be one meter square, and you start to feel pretty high in the air or deep underground as soon as you start building or digging. Mobs (in-game monsters) are more or less life-size, too, enough to make you a little jumpy the first time a spider comes at you. The low draw distance keeps the frame rate smooth, but the Galaxy S6 I was using was working hard to churn out those frames. It ate through the phone’s battery incredibly quickly. Though I didn’t have problems with overheating phones, throttling is commonly reported by others online. As one would expect from the Minecraft community, there are some creative solutions to throttling. (Read the user reviews at that link.)
Joining local cross-platform games worked flawlessly.
Coming from the old-school PC version with mouse and keyboard controls, playing Minecraft with a controller was a little awkward. That wouldn’t be a problem if you were used to the console version already, but it made everything feel really slow to me. Playing Minecraft in VR was straightforward enough, but the controller requirement often made me want to end my sessions with it fairly quickly. It’s probably a good thing that using a controller slowed me down and kept me playing in short bursts though—I’m pretty sure that longer sessions would have made me very, very motion sick.
Minecraft VR Edition offers a number of was to help you avoid motion sickness. Each method requires different sacrifices. By default, you start playing the game in a virtual room, sitting in a virtual chair, starring at a huge virtual screen that takes up most of your field of view. Critically, though, the rest of the space you are in is static. As you play the game, you’re not whipping the entire world around in front of your eyes—you’re just playing on a big screen. This is the mildest way to play Minecraft in VR, and I don’t expect many people would have problems with it as long as they were sitting still. I don’t expect many people would prefer this method to just playing on a physical screen or other ways of playing in VR, though.
If you tap the side of the headset by the directional pad, your view zooms into the virtual screen until you’re fully-immersed in the Minecraft world. I expect this is how most people will want to play to get the “true” experience of Minecraft in VR. Within this mode there are two options for control. The first, “VR Controls,” intentionally breaks the smooth motion of your camera control using the thumb stick and forces your view to hop through different preset angles. I suppose it’s less intense to play this way, but it feels a lot like a side effect of a choppy frame rate or really bad frame times. The rest of the game is running smoothly, though, something you can verify by watching mobs move or looking around by turning your head. The second mode, Classic, allows the traditional console controls to behave normally, with no imposed limitation on the movement of the camera. Unfortunately, neither mode kept me from feeling queasy.
Here’s my take on the token early-game screenshot.
Here’s the deal. I’m completely spoiled. If VR is a niche, then I’m operating in a niche of a niche. For what it is, the Gear VR and Minecraft VR Edition work together to offer a pretty cool experience. However, neither of them have the features they need to make me truly happy playing them. The first problem is easy to relate: since the Gear VR doesn’t have any means of external head tracking, your perception of the world is simply not 1:1 with the movement of your head. It’s good—quite good, actually—but it’s not perfect, and the gaps in its tracking are more than enough to cause problems.
Without true head tracking, there’s simply an entire dimension missing from the experience one might get from a Rift or Vive. You can pivot and rotate your view all you want (I found a swivel chair practically essential to get the best experience), but if you lean forward to look at something it won’t come the correct distance towards you. All the instances of that problem add up, and, at least for me, are a big part of why I can’t play with the Gear VR for very long.
The bigger problem for me is that I flat out can’t stand playing an FPS in VR if it isn’t decoupled. I know, almost no one reading this will be able to relate, but it is a huge deal. It would be like trying to go back to a mechanical boot drive after being used to an SSD. When I was playing Minecraft in VR it was positively infuriating to be walking along, turn my head to look at something, and then find myself walking in the direction I was looking in. That is not how people work in the real world. If you want to look at something and walk in a different direction, you have to compensate using the camera controls. That puts what you are doing in the game at odds with what you are doing in real life and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the reason for VR motion sickness in a nutshell.
As an entry-level VR experience and a game limited by the hardware’s abilities, I can’t really knock the Gear VR or Minecraft VR Edition for not fully tracking head and body position. I still think it’s worth mentioning though, because both the Rift and the Vive can at least partially avoid this problem in their titles if the software developers are so inclined.
Of course, just because I pack some unusual baggage doesn’t mean others have to feel the same way. Let’s see how our testing panel of kids felt about the Minecraft VR experience.
The party experience
The reaction of the party attendees is ultimately the crux of this review. You’ve had a chance to read some of the finer details about the hardware and software involved, but most of the kids we invited got tossed right into the deep end. They were all Minecraft veterans, mostly of the PC version. Some of them had played Minecraft Pocket Edition before, a few of them had played the game with a controller, and a couple had been given previews of the VR version before the party.
I used three PCs running the Windows 10 Edition of Minecraft as my servers. Up to four VR players were able to join each one of those servers over the LAN. This setup allowed me to use the same Oculus Home account for all the players so that I didn’t need to buy multiple copies of the game. The update that allowed for ten-player online Realms came out just before the party, but I avoided that update because it requires each player to have an Xbox Live account. Another preventative measure I took was to label the phones and controllers with numbers so no one would get confused by which device was paired to which.
Check out the clip below to see how the first little bit of the party went.
I think it’s pretty obvious that everyone was having a good time. The kids needed only minor help with the in-game controls and navigating the interface, finding the servers, and joining the group they wanted to play with. I remembered to change each player’s Minecraft skin before handing out the devices, but I missed that I could also change the default name without connecting to a Minecraft account. As a result, everyone was named Steve when they started playing. That was unintentionally hilarious. Unsurprisingly, one of the kids figured out how to change their in-world name before helpfully instructing the others how to do the same. Anonymity-calamity quickly came to an end.
A funny thing happened about ten minutes after I stopped recording the video above. The first kid took off his headset and handed it to me before we even reached the 30-minute mark. He said it was because he was feeling a little sick. Every five minutes or so after that, other kids dropped out of VR to grab snacks or watch the screens of the kids playing on PCs. None of the others reported any motion sickness, though. All told, only a couple of the kids played for much longer than 45 minutes. A couple of the kids that bailed on VR fired up Minecraft Pocket Edition on their own mobile devices and joined the servers from the real world for the rest of the party.
Pixelating the citrus beverage in this photo is probably unnecessary, but it fits the theme.
Now I know that a house full of kids can’t be expected to focus on just one activity for extended periods of time, but I did expect more of them to spend more time in VR than they did. After refueling on some snacks, a few of the kids went back into VR-land, but the party never saw more than three or four players in VR at the same time after the first hour. My overall impression is that the novelty wore off pretty quickly. I’m not discounting the impact of the atmosphere or the chance that there’s likely nothing that could have held kids’ collective attention for much longer.
I asked our attendees about the experience after the fact, and the consensus was that VR Minecraft may be a nice place to visit, but the long-term appeal of the platform is mixed. One of our panelists said “It’s cool, but I probably wouldn’t do it again, though.” Another said “it’s cool—I’d play it instead of ‘real Minecraft’ if other people would play with me.” A third said “I liked it, and I want to play it a lot of the time.” The range of responses underlines the fact that VR is really something that one has to try for themselves.
Samsung Gear VR – If you’re interested in VR, and have a compatible phone already, then a Gear VR is probably worth a look. There’s much more content out there for it than just Minecraft if craftin’ isn’t for you. If you don’t already have a compatible phone, then I’m not sure the Gear VR is worth buying a new phone for but it’s a definite point in the “pros” column if you’re trying to decide between a Samsung phone and every other high-end Android device out there. Just keep in mind that the Gear VR is pretty bare-bones. If it turns out you don’t like it, don’t count out VR in general, because the PC implementations can be much more compelling.
Moga Hero Power – For $20, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a higher quality Bluetooth controller. It’s a shame that the trigger buttons don’t work when the Hero Power is paired to a PC, though. It’s nice that it is small enough to be significantly more portable than other controller options while still remaining comfortable to use. I’m a big fan.
Minecraft VR Edition – In some ways, Minecraft seems like it could be the ultimate VR experience. In other ways, it’s a reminder that porting games to VR is likely to be rife with the same problems developers still occasionally have porting console games to PCs. Fortunately, there are no game-breaking glitches here. Everything appears sound from a technical standpoint. My issue with it is that, at the end of the day, I’d rather play it in its PC incarnation than in VR. I feel bad about that, but ultimately, I’m really only interested in VR experiences that I can’t have any other way. Our test panel was admittedly not the greatest sample for deciding whether Minecraft was a killer app for VR, but it didn’t hold their attention for all that long a time. If you’re trying to get a sense of how this generation of VR plays with a generally tech-savvy and Minecraft-addicted audience, that response probably speaks volumes.