I recently took the plunge into the virtual reality scene with the much buzzed about Samsung Gear VR paired with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Moga Pro Bluetooth Game Controller and the Icon Q Boundless H3 Bluetooth Headphones. After reading all of the hype and anticipation about the first mobile virtual reality system, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this thing. Here’s my first impressions…
Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition
Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Frosted White 32GB (AT&T)
First off, the Gear VR is actually the Gear VR Innovator Edition which means it’s not available at any electronic big box store. It’s available online for $200 at the official Samsung Gear VR site and works only with U.S. carrier Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphones. I was able to get an unlocked Sprint Note 4 on ebay but you should definitely browse this forum thread first to view Note 4 model compatibility should you choose to buy one.
Moga Pro Power Bluetooth Game Controller
Once I ordered the Note 4 and Gear VR online, I wanted to prepare for their arrival by gathering some must have accessories. Due to poor reviews of the Samsung Game Controller, I picked up the Moga Pro Power Bluetooth Game Controller instead which is available at most retail stores. The Moga Pro has a full set of console-style buttons like dual clickable analog sticks, L1/R1 shoulder buttons, L2/R2 shoulder triggers and a D-pad. It also comes with a tablet holder, a 2200 mAh internal battery and fold out smartphone holder that fits the Note 4 like a glove.
For audio, I used the Icon Q Boundless H3 Bluetooth Headphones which I recently reviewed here. The Boundless H3, with it’s polished glossy white finish, matches the Samsung Gear VR perfectly. To the untrained eye, the H3 looks like it’s part of the actual headset. As someone whose big on wearable technology, it’s important that whatever crazy contraptions I’m strapping to my face has some kind of style coordination.
Icon Q Boundless H3 Bluetooth v4.0 NFC Headphones
I’m happy to report that performance wise, the Boundless H3’s Bluetooth connection to the Note 4 has no latency when pairing with the Gear VR. Curiously, the performance and frequencies of the H3 performed much better on the Note 4 than on my iPhone 6. The bass hit where I wanted it to hit, voices were clear and the overall sound quality assisted my immersion into a virtual world. I would highly recommend a wireless Bluetooth headphone connection for the Gear VR. I tried using the 3.5mm cable and it was really annoying. Nothing pulls you out of virtual reality like a cable that constantly slaps against your shoulder. Go for the full experience of mobile VR and try to be as untethered as possible.
The Note 4 fits seamlessly into the Gear VR headset with a retractable micro USB port. There’s also a lens cloth, a removable foam liner, a focusing dial for the lenses, internal tracking sensors that aid the Note 4’s accelerometer and gyro sensors and an automatic on/off sensor that calibrates once you put the headset on. It also comes with a microSD card loaded with videos, a cosmetic visor cover and a really high quality hard shell case with a divider space to hold a game controller. The Moga Pro fits perfect. Be sure to adjust the headstraps for optimal comfort. This is important as it’s easy to get VR sickness if there’s too much pressure on your head and if anything appears blurry. If you want to perform quick demos of the Gear VR to others I suggest taking the straps off and covering the on/off sensor with black tape. This will allow others to jump out of VR if their senses get overwhelmed. Lens fog is a big issue since your face is completely enclosed in the headset and your body temperature can quickly moisten the lens which can literally dampen your VR experience. Oculus God John Carmack recommends getting the Clarity Defog It Reusable Wipes which is serious military grade stuff.
Clarity Defog It Dry Anti-Fog Cloths
Let’s go back to VR sickness for a minute. Personally, I’ve had some pretty sensitive inner ear issues all of my life which require me to take Dramamine whenever I travel by air. If you’re anywhere near my level of sensitivity I would definitely urge you to take precautions with some of the VR experiences in Gear VR. Seriously, unless you are a tech geek or an action sports junkie, this can be a huge turnoff for most people. Any games or experiences that create a forward movement can confuse the brain because it detects moving forward but you aren’t physically moving. Stationary experiences where your head is moving in 360 space is fine because the tracking is fast enough to fool your brain but trying to lean forward or walk around is asking for trouble. I believe this will eventually be solved by positional cameras but for now, anything that involves walking forward or backward with a controller is an utter nightmare. I lasted maybe 30 seconds in Temple Run VR, Dreadhalls and even Matterport VR before ripping off the headset and laying down for about an hour. Seriously Oculus, if you expect mobile VR to be accessible for the masses, VR sickness has gots to go. So now let’s get to the good stuff.
There are far too many apps and games to cover but my most favorite Gear VR experience by far is the Oculus Cinema app. Essentially, it’s like having your own private 80 foot theater complete with photorealistic objects like movie chairs or a projector, popcorn, and even light reflections from the film bouncing off the different environments. I immediately tested my own videos in Oculus Cinema and this will now be the main way to screen my video work that I truly care about. Without the threat of texting, less than ideal screening conditions and real world distractions, I can instantly transport someone into my own private virtual theater. I can see this being a major tool for digital filmmakers who can now screen their films for potential investors or producers without the need for renting an actual theater which is always expensive. In fact, because the Galaxy Note 4 has a Super AMOLED high resolution screen, the quality is surprisingly high because the video isn’t being stretched to it’s maximum resolution. Instead it’s condensed into the screen which packs the pixels together. It’s like watching an HD YouTube video in the player without maximizing the screen, it appears sharper with more clarity. Even watching some of my older films in Oculus Cinema has gotten me inspired. It reminds me why I love movies so much. To be able to instantly capture that immersive theater experience makes the Samsung Gear VR one of the most important technological achievements of the decade.
Wow that’s a bold statement, but damn if it isn’t true! Another big revelation to me were the 360 videos, some of which were pretty cringe worthy and others, most notably, Strangers with Patrick Watson and Cirque Du Soleil’s Zarkana were totally on the ball. A Canadian production team called Felix & Paul Studios seem to be the front runners of premium VR content using proprietary hardware and software. But more importantly, these guys are obvious storytellers and their ability to capture an immediate emotional connection to another world is pretty impressive.
I think we’ll be seeing a lot of people just planting 360 cameras anywhere and just calling it a day. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not only about being tech savvy (yet it kinda is) and it’s not only about being a great storyteller (but wait, it is). I envision a new generation of filmmakers who will grow up understanding video as a natural 3D canvas who will able to write and direct without the limitations of 2 dimensions, 24 frames per second, wide, medium, closeups and all of the cinematic language we’ve been tethered to for over a century. As mobile phones and wearable tech continue to invade our real world, for better or worse, it’s ironic that Oculus and Samsung have made me feel something I haven’t known since I was a 9 year old kid watching Die Hard, my first R rated movie theater experience: