Samsung’s Gear VR may be the Galaxy S8’s greatest fringe benefit
The Samsung Galaxy S8 is almost here, and it’s getting some company.
Samsung’s latest superphone will be officially unveiled on March 29, but one of its implied accessories has already seen the light of day. The newest version of the Gear VR was already shown off weeks ago at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. The new model — the fourth iteration of the accessory that turns various Samsung Galaxy phones into a virtual reality helmet — now includes a dedicated controller, too.
While the nascent virtual reality movement has struggled since bursting on to the scene in 2016, the Gear VR has been a bona fide hit. In fact, with over 5 million Gear VR headsets sold as of January, Gear VR may well be a larger VR platform than Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VRcombined. (The Gear VR incorporates Oculus tech, too.)
Yes, the Gear VR had more than a headstart of more than a year. (The original model went on sale in December 2014.) And a lot of those “sales” were freebie giveaways with Galaxy S phones. But that’s exactly the point: That formula has worked out well, and Samsung looks to repeat the same playbook for the S8.
And it doesn’t hurt that, even at full price, the Gear VR is also one of the best VR platforms for the money.
Big dog in VR
The ultra-cheap Google Cardboard may beat Gear VR on numbers if you count all the giveaways handed out over the years, but it’s also not a platform in the same way: there isn’t a Cardboard app store, per se. Gear VR, like the Daydream View — which is basically Google’s answer to Gear VR — is connected to its own app ecosystem. It’s more finely-tuned. And, it’s far more of an immersive experience.
No, Gear VR isn’t as advanced as a Vive, Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR. You can’t walk through rooms or lean into objects. Like with Google Daydream or Google Cardboard, you need to sit down or stand still and turn your head around to look at things. But its impressive app library includes a host of channels for 360-degree videos and streaming 360-degree content. For viewing films or immersive 360-degree projects, Gear VR is portable, easy and comfortable. It’s an ideal basic VR viewer.
The upcoming Gear VR Controller should be the type of magic wand that the headset has desperately needed, versus the Xbox-style Bluetooth gamepads that worked with previous models. A new wave of apps and games should take advantage of the controller in new ways: navigation, interaction and as a substitute for free-range VR walking-around. On Google Daydream, the included remote makes using Google StreetView easier. I can use the remote to click around apps and browse videos as well as photos.
Daydream View works with a growing range of Android phones, but the selection (Pixel, Moto Z and a few others) just can’t compare to the popularity of Samsung. Even in the shadow of the Galaxy Note 7 recall fiasco, Samsung is still neck-and-neck with Apple when it comes to worldwide handset marketshare. And that gives Gear VR a huge leg up.
Galaxy S8, with VR along for the ride
Maybe you shouldn’t buy a high-end VR headset if you’re not ready to accept its limitations and imperfections. But with a street price of under $100, £80 or AU$160 (for the 2016 version, anyway) — and those freebie bundles accompanying earlier Galaxy phone launches — Gear VR has been a perfectly-priced thing to buy. The headset remains one of my favorite casual ways to try new VR videos. Its larger library of apps and better fit on my face still make me prefer it to Google Daydream, for now. And that’s before the upcoming controller’s potential benefits.
The Galaxy S8 may not enable any new VR possibilities, either. But that doesn’t make the Gear VR any less key for the Galaxy phones going forward. Gear VR still only works with a certain set of Samsung phones, and literally requires the phone as its display. In that sense, a new Galaxy phone — undoubtedly faster — is also a Gear VR hardware revamp.
How do you get people to wear VR? It’s a question I struggle with, as my own headsets sit unused on my desk at home. Owning a piece of the puzzle helps. The more Galaxy S8 owners there are, possibly with Gear VR headsets, the more likely they are to try it. And right now, VR still needs all the help it can get.
Facebook and Oculus are aiming for VR to go increasingly mobile. Gear VR, in that sense, is still one of the clearest pathways to that future.
And the Galaxy S8 might be its best fast lane.