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Samsung Gear VR headset hands-on: Better than the Oculus Rift (in some ways)

Hayden Dingman | Sept. 23, 2014
Apologies to Samsung. I've talked a lot of smack about its Gear VR headset, from the day we first heard the rumor that "Samsung is getting into virtual reality." It seemed like a disaster in the making--a desperate cash grab that was going to poison the VR well before Oculus even made it to market. Back at E3 I even asked Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell whether they were worried at all about Samsung, which seems especially ironic in retrospect considering the two companies are partnering up for Gear VR.

Moving over to interactive experiences, Harmonix's app stands out. It's less a "game" and more of a music visualizer in full 3D, and that's fine with me. There were five songs included in the demo and I ran through every single one of them, just to see more. The visualizer puts you on a cartoony tropical beach, where every single object moves to the beat; for instance, the waves pulse up and down to the rhythm. Focusing on certain "special objects" then causes them to fill your entire frame of vision, providing a more traditional visualizer experience. The moon, for instance, becomes a pulsing ball that expands and contracts, while the sun becomes a crazy kaleidoscope of colors. There are more environments planned for the full release.

Most of the games I played were games I've already tried on the Rift, such as Lucky's Tale, so I won't bother talking much about them. Suffice it to say the Gear VR does just as good a job playing them as the DK2. You won't be seeing a high-end title like Elite: Dangerous on Gear VR anytime soon, but for the low-poly, stylized demos we see quite often on the Rift, Gear VR works great. I shot down planes, I solved part of a locked-room mystery, and I played the arcade classic Breakout in full 3D. All of this went down without a hitch, and not having a cable tethered to the side of your head makes things like "spinning rapidly in circles in a desk chair" a lot less scary.

First to market woes

There are still problems though. First of all, Samsung's gamepad is a hot piece of garbage. I didn't have to use it much, and thank god for that. It's an awkward shape, not really fitting into my hands comfortably no matter how much I shifted. Instead of analog sticks it uses slidepads that are recessed into the controller, and the D-pad is another circle that halfheartedly tilts slightly to the side when pressed. The Start and Select buttons are placed on the bottom edge, making it all but impossible to hit them; the face buttons are labeled with one to four dots making it impossible to remember which is which; and there are only two triggers instead of the now-standard-for-every-single-gamepad-come-on-Samsung-what-are-you-doing four.

I don't like it.

The Gear VR's optics don't seem quite perfect yet, and I noticed some slight warping of the image at certain angles or when turning my head quickly, almost as if the lenses weren't quite adjusted right.

John Carmack opened his keynote the other day talking about what he sees as the device's faults, so in fairness I'll list them here: It only refreshes at 60Hz instead of the 90Hz Oculus sees as a baseline, and there's no position tracking.

 

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