Samsung is closing out 2015 with a bang in Virtual Reality. After a couple iterations of developer kits (AKA Innovator Editions) for their Gear VR mobile device housing, the newest consumer-ready Gear VR seems to have found a winning recipe for VR. The right ratio of attractiveness, accessibility, and affordability have led the Gear VR to user acclaim and continuing positive press coverage. It’s not the first of its kind, and it won’t be the highest quality VR experience available (that will go the tethered VR devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive), but it’s relatively early market entry and balanced offering positions Gear VR as one of the first consumer-ready VR devices, poised to launch an industry that had since been relegated mostly to the tech savvy and driven by ambitious hype. The Wall Street Journal likened the situation to that of the Atari 2600 and its effect on the home console gaming market, and for good reason.
We’ve broken out the Virtual Reality device market into three categories: Tethered, Mobile-Reliant, and Standalone. Tethered devices, such as the Oculus Rift, require a wired connection to a PC or gaming console to provide processing and power to the device. Mobile-reliant devices are those like the Samsung Gear VR, which house a smartphone which powers the VR experience. Standalone VR devices require no external device, and are rare today. The nature of mobile VR allows for generally lower costs to those with a smartphone, and wider accessibility overall. These factors will drive mobile VR to be the leader in the VR space, especially in the early stages through 2017. Market maturity will bring along lower cost devices, higher quality content, and a better understanding of VR from users.
The new Gear VR specifically has a few key benefits that will make it a market leader:
- Wider range of supported devices: While the device is still limited to Samsung flagship smartphones, support for both the Galaxy and Note lineups combines the previously segmented user base. This is inherently limiting, but the size of Samsung’s market share makes this less of an issue.
- On-board Sensors: the key differentiator of Gear VR when compared to something like Google Cardboard is the presence of onboard sensors on the housing itself. The array takes accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer data, and when combined with similar sensor data from the phone, provides a more accurate experience than the phone sensors could alone.
- Low latency: Motion to photon latency (the time between a user input and the subsequent change in display) is low enough to be negligible, at around 20 milliseconds. Any higher and users can become nauseous very quickly, and lower response times are better but are met with diminishing returns. More powerful mobile devices and more capable sensors should continue to keep this latency low.
- Quality of Life improvements: The new device includes some features and improvements that, while not necessary, make the experience more pleasant. Lens adjustment to support nearsightedness and farsightedness is something not offered by the inexpensive Cardboard products, but can improve the visual quality significantly for those without perfect vision. An improved trackpad-which was already an improvement on the binary “button” found on inexpensive housings-and lighter build weight continue to better the experience.
- Display quality: Recent Samsung smartphones have been lauded for their class-leading display quality, and this translates directly to the VR experience. Resolution is the first thing you see when using VR; the 1440p panel on Samsung flagships is common among high-end smartphones, but is above average for VR (the Rift will support 2160x1200, slightly lower than 1440p). Color accuracy and picture quality are also great with the AMOLED display. This of course is not a benefit of the Gear VR housing itself and rather the associated phone, but the housing and phone should be treated as a single unit. Optics quality is inherent to the housing, though, and the optics are high enough quality not to affect visual quality.
As strong a contender as Gear VR is, Virtual Reality as a whole struggles to escape the “you just have to try it” stage of marketing and recognition. Press and reviewers only have so many ways to say “It’s like you’re actually there” before consumers brush it off as nothing special. Low-cost initiatives like Google Cardboard are helping to spread the experience for a small cost. Tethered VR devices suffer the most, with high fiscal barriers and hardware requirements. Brick and mortar stores will offer a way to experience these products before investing, but their continually waning popularity still leaves users with limited options. Gear VR is placed in the middle of this paradigm at $100, and will benefit from a more accessible price point than tethered VR while offering a higher quality experience than the lowest tier; purchase as a holiday gift or to indulge curiosity is completely viable. It will also act as a bridge between low end and high end experiences, which is a trait shared with no other device currently.
When one looks back on the beginning of a new trend or industry, there is always contention as to the true start of it. Timelines, definitions, and personal significance vary. Whether the Atari 2600 was objectively the start of console gaming is irrelevant, because the impact it had on the industry is undeniable. The consumer Gear VR in 2015 will be regarded in a similar way for Virtual Reality; maybe not the first, maybe not the best, but definitely the most impactful, and at a time where impact is crucial.