Gear VR a relatively inexpensive introduction to the hot new thing

Gear VR a relatively inexpensive introduction to the hot new thing

Every so often, tech companies try to sell us on some hot new thing — and a lot of it has an impact on video games.

Around 2005, they really started pushing high-definition televisions. It took a little bit of doing, but ultimately, it paid off. HD sets are now the standard.

Then came motion-controlled technology, starting with the Nintendo Wii. That took off like wildfire, and Microsoft and Sony tried to follow suit — with the Kinetic and Move, respectively. But after a few years of success, well, none of those seem to be doing that well now.

Next up: 3-D televisions. They failed to catch on, partially because the sets are relatively expensive and everyone who wants to watch needs their own set of special glasses. It’s caught in a vicious circle: There isn’t much 3-D programming available, so not many people are buying 3-D TVS, and because few people are buying 3-D TVs, nobody is developing things to watch on them.

After that, we get to 4K televisions. The future of these is to be determined. I’ll admit that I’m not terribly optimistic about 4K just yet, because 4K shows and games aren’t really being pushed into the mainstream.

That brings us to:

Virtual reality headsets.

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The Oculus Rift. The HTC Vive. PlayStation VR. Samsung Gear VR. Google Cardboard. And these are just the most mainstream ones, to date.

I decided to dip my toe into the virtual world with the Samsung Gear VR for one simple reason: I got the headset for free when I pre-ordered a new smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S7.

I wasn’t expecting to be impressed. It didn’t really think sticking a cellphone screen in front of some plastic lenses set in a quasi-scuba mask would result in anything worth writing home about.

I was wrong.

Oh, Gear VR is miles away from perfect. But it’s also amazing at the same time.

Maybe I’m just a sucker because it allows me to lay back in bed, with a headset and surround-sound headphones on, and watch a film on Netflix on what feels like a movie-theater-sized screen — without disturbing my wife next to me.

The picture isn’t as perfect as it could be because the phone screen, while appearing crystal clear to the naked eye, gets a bit grainy when examined with the equivalent of magnifying glasses.

Still, after you get used to things, the grainy effect becomes less intrusive.

Frankly, though, if it was only useful for watching 2-D movies on a simulated big screen while my head is resting on a pillow, yeah, the Samsung Gear VR is already worth $99 to me.

But that’s just the beginning. There’s actually a wide variety of content available for the device, primarily games and VR videos (including adult material if you choose to seek it out), but also self-improvement apps and interactive environments.

For instance, I’ve played around with “Guided Meditation VR,” where you visit “exotic” locales — I prefer the beach, where the rhythm of crashing waves fills my ears — and try to follow along as an instructor verbally guides you in meditating. It feels a little silly and new age-y for me, but it’s a nice effort.

There’s also the Samsung BeFearless series. I tried the one on overcoming fear of heights, but I didn’t really get anything out of it — probably because I’ve already jumped out of perfectly good airplanes without much issue. There’s also one on public speaking.

Of course, I’ve also watched my share of virtual-reality videos, which attempt to make you feel like you are visiting a real place with three-dimensional imagery where you can see in every direction, including up and down. The quality can be mixed. Some are highly detailed and make you feel you truly are in another place. Others just don’t get the job done, but that’s the fault of the video creator, not the Gear VR.

But what about games, you ask; isn’t this a gaming column?

You’re right, and I’ve played a few of them too. However, I’m cheap, so I’ve only played the ones I could get for free.

My favorite to date is “Mortal Blitz VR — Escape the Darkness.” It plays like “Time Crisis,” but with a sci-fi zombie theme. You look freely around the 360-degree environment and tap the control pad on the VR headset to interact with the world. Movement is on rails and you progress by looking at indicated points and tapping once to go there. When enemies attack, you aim by looking at them, and touch the pad to fire your gun. When you’re firing, you’re vulnerable, so lift your finger off the pad to shield yourself.

The graphics are rudimentary, characterized by almost-featureless metal corridors and blocky monsters, but it's enough to effectively communicate where to go and what to do. And movement is slow enough that motion sickness doesn’t become much of a problem.

Yes, one of the big issues with VR is motion sickness. Most apps in the Oculus store (Oculus makes the Gear VR for Samsung) are marked with a rating of how likely they are to make you feel nauseous.

I’ve found that if you start feeling sick, it’s time to take off the headset and do something else.

I generally haven’t had that problem, though.

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My main issue is the same one I have scuba diving: The lenses fog up. It really needs ventilation, as I’m hesitant to use the standard scuba remedy on a device I’m not going to immerse in water regularly: spitting on the lenses.

Another issue is “drift.” The headset orients itself based on the direction you’re facing when you first put it on, though you can manually reset it.

Yet I’ve found that, over time, many apps lose track of that initial orientation and the view starts drifting off to the side, so I have to turn to keep looking in the right direction. Eventually I have to use the reset, only for the problem to begin again. It gets annoying.

Other problems stem from the Oculus store. Some of the apps you need to make full use of the Gear VR aren’t automatically installed. For instance, you need to download Samsung Milk VR if you want a VR-movie player. The default Oculus Video app only plays regular videos with the big-screen effect.

A bigger problem is that, unlike the Google Play Store, the Oculus store doesn’t allow you to restrict automatic downloads to WiFi. So if you don’t disable auto-update, you can burn through your data plan unknowingly. And that’s expensive.

Overall, though, Gear VR is a great way to dip a toe into the world of virtual reality, provided you own a compatible smartphone or are about to buy one — it’s still a free gift with the latter option. Otherwise, it’s $99.99. More details can be found at samsung.com/us/explore/gear-vr.

This just might be a technology with staying power.

Joel Leizer is The News-Gazette’s Playing Critic. Got a game you would like him to review? Contact him at jleizer@news-gazette.com.

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