The number of mobile VR headsets has increased, but the flood of virtual reality is yet to come.
Less than six months after the release of the Gear VR “Innovator Edition” headset, Samsung and Oculus are iterating on their mobile virtual-reality efforts with the Samsung Gear VR for Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, which went on sale online today. We got a hands-on with it earlier this week, and based on our short time with it, it’s clear that while it’s not a dramatically different piece of hardware, Samsung has been listening closely to consumer feedback.
In terms of design, the Gear VR for S6’s shape has been tweaked some. The back straps have been angled down a bit more, the touch pad has been recessed so you can feel its borders more easily, and the back button moved to a centered position above the touch pad. The focus dial now has a wider range of diopter adjustment as well (all the way to -9). These changes are intended to make it more comfortable and easier to use the headset, but I still noticed the weight of the phone (and its battery) at the front, and I still couldn’t quite get the focus just right for my eyes. The view was clear, but always felt ever so slightly off.
The Gear VR for S6 also features a USB port for power, which its predecessor notably lacks. So if you don’t mind being tethered to a wall, you can be in VR indefinitely. According to Oculus, it’s not a charging port, though; it only passes through power to the phone if VR is active, and it’s just enough juice to zero out what’s being drawn. There’s also a fan in the headset now; my demo was too short to accurately gauge just how much cooler it felt over time, but I can at least say it wasn’t loud enough that I noticed its presence.
When using the Gear VR for S6, a couple of things jumped out right away. First was the reduced screen-door effect, which comes thanks to the S6’s smaller, but more pixel-dense screen – it has the same screen resolution of the 2560×1440 as the Note 4, but packed into fewer inches. However, because the S6’s screen isn’t as large, the Gear VR for S6’s field of view is significantly narrower, giving more of a looking-through-binoculars effect. It’s not a bad tradeoff at all, but it is noticeable.
One thing to note about the Gear VR for S6 is that Samsung still considers this an Innovator Edition headset. (In other words, it’s meant for developers and not consumers.) According to Oculus, we can expect consumer mobile VR this fall; currently, the focus is still on ramping up the Oculus Store and getting more content on it – like games, for example.
Of the three games I tried, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes was the most inventive of the bunch: the person wearing the Gear VR has to describe a bomb to other people in the room, who then have to consult charts and give instructions for safely defusing the explosive before the ominously ticking clock counts down to zero. It was fun and tense, and an interesting challenge of how to quickly describe things in detail.
Two games that featured gamepad support were also shown – one was a sequel to Herobound, a fantasy-style game with very light RPG aspects, and the other was Omega Agent, in which you navigate cities by jetpack. After playing through each, it doesn’t appear that the Gear VR for S6 offers much relief for people who suffer from motion sickness in virtual reality (possibly due to the lack of positional head tracking via an external camera). My fragile stomach kept lurching every time I soared over my cityscape surroundings. People who don’t experience eye fatigue or motion sickness in VR should find these kinds of 360-degree experiences pretty enjoyable, though, particularly if they’re seeking more traditional gaming experiences – Herobound: Spirit Champion is a 10-hour game.
(Incidentally – for owners of original Gear VR headsets wondering if they’ll have to upgrade both their phone and their headset to access the latest games, Oculus was quick to assure us that they’re still actively supporting the Note 4 and its Gear VR headset. All three games I saw, for example, either already have or will later offer compatibility for the Note 4.)
How the Gear VR for S6 furthers the goal to bring virtual reality to consumers isn’t quite clear yet – all in all, our first experience with it was entirely too brief. (We’ll share our final impressions in our coming review.) In general, though, with HTC planning to release its VR headset later this year, and Oculus and Sony to launch theirs in 2016, virtual-reality enthusiasts still have a lot more to look forward to.
Alaina Yee is IGN’s tech editor and resident crow. When she’s not busy hiding in her cardboard box fort at the office, you can find her on Twitter.