For two years running, we’ve called Samsung’s Gear VR the best virtual reality for your phone. Simply slip your Samsung Galaxy S handset into the frame, strap it to your head, and you can gaze into a virtual world.
It’s basic, but fun — and for 2017, with the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S8, the Gear VR is getting a bit more adventurous.
The $130 Samsung Gear VR with Controller, coming April 21, packs a brand-new wireless controller in the box that unlocks new kinds of apps and games. Instead of turning your head to do absolutely everything — which could get tiring — you can wave a motion-sensing wand to swing a sword and aim independently of the direction you’re facing. It feels a bit like a cross between the HTC Vive wand and the tiny wireless wand that comes with Google’s Daydream View.
Unlike Google’s remote, the controller also has a trigger, which means shooting games are on the table too. We had fun blasting away at zombies in launch title Drop Dead, and software partner Oculus is planning its first-ever port of a full PC shooting title, the cowboy-themed Dead and Buried, to the new Gear VR controller as well.
Just don’t expect to feel the recoil of those six-shooters quite yet. Oculus head of mobile Max Cohen admits that haptic feedback is a goal down the road, but it wasn’t viewed as critical right now. On the plus side, the wand should last 40 hours on a pair of AAA batteries.
Beyond the controller, Cohen says we should expect some major software updates to the Gear VR experience, too — including tweaks that could improve user interface resolution, load apps three times faster, use 30 percent less battery life, and add the ability to create your own avatars. (Hulu viewing parties are coming soon, says Oculus.)
There’s also a brand-new Oculus web browser that will be able to stream 360 videos from YouTube and other sources. The resolution on that browser, Cohen promises, is so good for reading text that it feels HD compared to the “SD” world of most VR. We didn’t get to try it, but a visual resolution bump might be the best news for mobile VR — or, really, any VR. Gear VR, after all, has a higher-resolution screen than most thanks to the Samsung phones it uses. But it hasn’t been fully tapped yet.
The most remarkable claim? Just how broadly accessible Oculus and Samsung say these improvements will be. If you own one of the 5 million existing Gear VR headsets, you won’t need a new one, because the motion controller will also be sold separately for $40 (roughly £32 or AU$52) and work with every previous Gear VR ever made. Cohen says many of the software improvements will come to older Samsung phones too.
Plus, Oculus claims the controller will automatically work with every one of the existing 700+ apps on Gear VR as a basic touchpad — developers will only need to add code if they want to take advantage of the trigger and motion controls.
There’s not much difference between the 2016 and 2017 headsets themselves. Samsung says the only physical changes are a new orchid gray color to match the Galaxy S8, and a redesigned modular USB-C connector (you can swap it out with Micro-USB) to plug in the new phone.
That means you shouldn’t expect any visual improvements or weight reduction, but it also means you’ll only need a new Gear VR if you buy the Galaxy S8… and like last year, every S8 preorder will come with the new Gear VR for free.
In total, the new Gear VR supports the Samsung Galaxy S8, S8 Plus, S7, S7 Edge, S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge Plus and Note 5, so you may be fine buying it for many older Samsung phones. Even though the new S8 has roughly a 10 percent faster CPU and 21 percent faster graphics than the S7, app developers still need to support Samsung’s older models.
Samsung isn’t shy about the fact that it’s following Google’s lead (with the rival Daydream View headset) by making a motion controller part of your complete mobile VR breakfast. In fact, Gear VR product manager Wondo Kang sees it as a plus, making it easier for Daydream apps to come to Gear VR and vice versa. “It makes game developers’ lives a little bit easier,” he says.
And yet some experiences may require a traditional Xbox-style Bluetooth gamepad, too. Oculus’ Cohen suggests that Minecraft, for instance, won’t make use of the new controller anytime soon.
Oculus says there’ll be 20 motion controller-ready apps when the new Gear VR arrives this April, and 50 more over the next few months.
Shara Tibken contributed reporting.
Disclosure: Sean’s wife works for Facebook, which owns Oculus, as a business-to-business video project manager.
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