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Inside Gear VR: Why Samsung’s Android Oculus Rift is the future of mobile

We go behind the goggles and ask what Samsung's VR headset means for Android apps and games

GEARVR

Rather than staring blankly out of the window on your commute home, why not immerse yourself in the fight against an alien invasion? If you’re having a stressful day at work, transport yourself to a calming oasis on your lunch break. Nothing on TV this evening? Enjoy a 3D performance of the Cirque du Soleil in your living room. What sounds like science fiction is now science fact thanks to the Samsung Gear VR  Innovator Edition headset.

“The Samsung Gear VR goes far beyond expectations of how mobile technology can be used to consume content, and is a powerful representation of the progressive innovation of the Gear series,” said JK Shin, President and CEO of IT & Mobile Communications Division at Samsung Electronics, when revealing the futuristic gadget at the launch event for the Galaxy Note 4 at IFA, back in September.

A complete departure from Samsung’s other accessories in the Gear range, which have all taken the form of smartwatches, the Gear VR was produced in partnership with Oculus, the virtual reality experts that hit the headlines when they were bought up by Facebook  last year. Making the most of the phablet’s Quad HD Super AMOLED screen, the Note 4 fits into the front of the headset that contain Oculus-designed goggles, which when worn trick your eyes into viewing what’s on the phone screen as a three-dimensional image. As well as wide viewing angles, accelerator, gyrometer, magnet and proximity sensors, the headset will respond to your movements to adjust the view so you feel truly immersed in a virtual world, as well as allowing you to move around and interact with it.

Like the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR allows users to play games, as well as watch virtual reality movies and enjoy 360-degree experiences. Early hands-on reviews of the Gear VR have been positive, and after an initial release in the US in December, the headset is expected to launch in Europe by the end of the month. Other tech firms are developing their own VR tech, including Microsoft’s new HoloLens system. But can this strange sci-fi tech really ever be more than a niche interest?

The future of games

“VR is something that has to be seen to be believed, and that’s not going to change,” admits Max Cohen, Oculus’ Head of Mobile. “I was a disbeliever and almost passed on the opportunity to get a demonstration when Brendan Iribe [Oculus’ CEO] and I first talked about it a year ago.” However, describing how he has carried the Gear VR around in his backpack for several days, he says the headset has been able to convert sceptics. “Being able to hand this to friends across the table and say, ‘Here, try this’ is the quickest way we can get the message about VR out to people.”

Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO of British videogame developing company nDreams, also believes VR is the future: “We fully expect virtual reality to significantly disrupt all gaming platforms over the next few years whether it be mobile, PC or console.” Talking about the Gear VR specifically, O’Luanaigh has described it as “a great piece of kit and one that works brilliantly.” He has such confidence in it, nDreams has developed two games for the Gear VR: Gunner and Perfect Beach.

Gunner is a new game for the Gear VR developed by nDreams
Gunner is a new game for the Gear VR developed by nDreams

Discussing space alien blaster game Gunner, O’Luanaigh outlined why he thinks VR gaming is so special: “The great thing about using VR is it allows us to be not just controller-free but also hands-free: players use the movement of their head to target and take down waves of enemy spaceships. Not only does this allow for a more engaging game due to VR – it feels like you’re actually there – but also allows the game to be accessible for everyone to play.”

And he’s not alone, the creators of Temple Run demonstrated a first-person version of the game at the Gear VR launch event. The powerhouses behind the award-wining puzzle games Monument Valley and The Room – UsTwo Games and Firebox Games respectively – have also announced they are working on games for the Gear VR.

An unlikely partnership

However, there is not a lot of risk in developing games for the Gear VR. Even if Samsung’s experiment with VR doesn’t work out, all of the games created for the mobile headset are co-published for the Oculus Rift games console. Asked if he had more confidence in the Gear VR because of Oculus’ involvement, O’Luanaigh gave a diplomatic answer: “Knowing that all the learnings and technology that Oculus have developed over the last few years has been put into the Gear VR device has shown in the final product: it’s brilliant!  But it’s been a partnership with Samsung who are leaders in the smartphone field and it’s reassuring to know they’re also putting everything behind the Gear VR too.”

With high expectations for the launch of their own headset, the Oculus Rift, in April 2015 based on the critical acclaim for their developer kits, and certain financial security thanks to $2 billion investment from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, it’s a wonder why Oculus felt the need to partner with Samsung at all.

“We are thrilled to reveal the Gear VR Innovator Edition, a state-of-the-art mobile VR experience powered by Oculus,” said John Carmack, CTO of Oculus, at the Samsung launch event. “The deep technical partnership with Samsung has enabled us to create a virtual reality headset with world class resolution and performance, all on a completely mobile platform.”

A tear down of the new Oculus prototype, known as Crescent Bay, may suggest the key to the relationship. Repair guide and electronic teardown website iFixit.com found the developer kit was using a Samsung Super AMOLED
screen. Could the Gear VR have been part of a deal with Samsung to provide cheap displays and drive down the cost of the Rift when it finally launches?

When asked what motivated the partnership between the two companies, Max Cohen said: “The Samsung partnership showed that high-quality VR can be done on a mobile device. The advantages of being untethered, portable, sub-20ms latency and with a very high resolution led to a compelling product that we wanted to share with the world. However, it still does have its drawbacks, which is why this version is the Gear VR Innovator Edition, designed for developers and early-adopting tech nerds and enthusiasts.”

Android VR

If mobility is something that Oculus thinks is important to its future, will this lead to more Android partnerships? Max Cohen didn’t rule it out: “John Carmack and his team have worked very closely with Samsung and Qualcomm to make Mobile VR not just possible, but awesome. If we can hit the awesome threshold with other devices there’s no reason why Oculus won’t be involved in other places.” However, Cohen was keen to stress that the “awesome threshold” is a very high bar. Some people have asked why this doesn’t support the Galaxy S5 or Note 3 – the answer is we can’t get enough performance out of those devices to be up to a consumer product standard. Going forward, technology just gets better, so that will change rapidly.”

Meanwhile, Oculus’ biggest rival is Project Morpheus, run by Sony. While its virtual reality headset will work with the PlayStation 4  console and Vita handset, it’s assembled from components used to make its Xperia smartphones. With the PlayStation Remote Play feature available on the Xperia Z3, how far fetched is it to imagine a future flagship with Project Morpheus support?

Razer, gaming, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, virtual reality, headset, development, CES 2015, technology, Android, Linux, OSVR
Razer’s new Gear VR rival, the OSVR

Google also look set to enter the world of virtual reality. The company gave away a self-assembly prototype for a virtual reality headset, called Cardboard VR, at Google I/O’s keynote last year. Like the Gear VR, the user inserts their smartphone into the front and stereoscopic lenses give the display a 3D feel. The difference is that Cardboard VR works with any Android smartphone. Google has also made the software for writing games for the headset freely available to developers. While the Google Glass Explorer programme has been discontinued, Google have also invested heavily in a firm called Magic Leap, which has created an augmented reality – or “cinematic reality” as they call it – headset.

At CES 2015, Razer are also announced the development kit for their own Android-compatilble virtual reality headset, called the OSVR.

Only time will tell, but right now it looks like mainstream mobile VR could soon become a reality.

This article first appeared in Android Magazine issue 44. To keep up with the latest Android news, reviews and tutorials, buy Android Magazine here or subscribe here.

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