The state of VR: Where Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Gear VR, and others stand right now

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Samsung Gear VR

There’s a third vision of virtual reality coming to market—mobile virtual reality. Like, with a phone.

gearvr

Samsung’s new Gear VR.

The lo-fi version of this is Google Cardboard, but that’s more of a fancy View-Master than a full-fledged VR platform. The only high-end mobile VR platform at the moment is Samsung’s Gear VR. 

Gear VR’s a bit weird in that it’s not one set standard, like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. The actual Gear VR is just a fancy piece of molded plastic with some lenses, a high-end gyroscope for rotation-tracking, embedded controls, and a volume rocker. The core of the experience is your phone, which means there are a range of Gear VR-compatible products.

It’s a narrow range, though. The first two Gear VR iterations were compatible with exactly one phone each—first the Note 4, then the Galaxy S6. The consumer-oriented Gear VR is a bit broader, but not by much. You can use the upcoming Gear VR with the entire lineup of Samsung’s 2015 flagship phones. That’s PR-speak for the Note 5, S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Edge+. Four phones.

gearvr compatibility

Those phones slot into Gear VR and act as the processing power, storage, screen, and audio output. The benefit is there’s no “tether”—no cable hooked from the headset to a computer. All of the software, every game or app, runs off the phone. This allows for what Oculus’s John Carmack terms “swivel-chair VR,” meaning you can spin in circles as long as you want without worrying about getting tangled.

The drawback? Less power—both in terms of performance and battery. A fully-rigged gaming PC will run circles around the Gear VR’s output, meaning you can run more photorealistic or intensive games. And your Oculus Rift will never run out of battery in the middle of playing, because it doesn’t need a battery. Your phone’s not so lucky.

Samsung’s also had trouble courting developers onto its platform. Unlike the Rift, which has hundreds of demos and experiences you can try straight out the box, Gear VR is still struggling to give you a reason why you should buy it.

GearVR (Note 4)

Here’s my awesome grandpa checking out virtual reality—something I never thought I’d see.

”Okay, so assuming I do want one, when can I buy it? And for how much?” If you already own one of Samsung’s flagship 2015 phones, the company’s making it easy to buy Gear VR. The headset ships in November at the low, low cost of $100, making it by far the cheapest virtual reality investment you could make.

That’s assuming you own one of Samsung’s phones though—presumably for day-to-day cell phone use. If you don’t, the price immediately jumps to $700 or more, because you’ll need to buy one of the company’s high-end phones off contract and buy Gear VR. That’s still cheaper than rigging a gaming PC, but it’s not quite the bargain Samsung makes it out to be with that $100 price tag.

Oh, and one more thing: There’s no guarantee that Samsung’s flagship phones next year will work with the 2015 Gear VR. Or that apps designed for 2016’s phones will work on 2015 hardware. Phone technology iterates rapidly, as does VR.

Next page: Starbreeze’s StarVR

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