Samsung Gear VR to Test Virtual Reality’s Mass Appeal

Samsung last week unveiled a consumer version of a virtual reality headset adapter that converts Samsung smartphones into head-mounted displays.

The move represents a first strike — ready or not — as top tech industry players begin to push virtual reality hardware into consumer markets.

Taking what they learned from the developer version of the headset, launched last fall, Samsung and partner Oculus VR have imparted several improvements to the consumer version of Gear VR.

Compared to the previous Gear VR Innovator Edition, the consumer version of the headset weighs about 22 percent less. Samsung has improved the GearVR’s touchpad to afford wearers greater control, and the company also added foam to the headset to make for a more comfortable, contour-conforming fit.

Rounding out the list of improvements to the Gear VR is its price. The consumer version of the headset will sell for US$99 — half the price of the Innovator Edition.

Making Headway Through Low Overhead

The Gear VR is slated for a November release window, right around the time customers can begin making advance orders for Vive VR: the full-fat VR headset from HTC and Valve.

Oculus VR plans to release its long-awaited Oculus Rift at some point in the first quarter of 2016, and Sony has indicated that PlayStation VR (formerly known as “Morpheus”) also will launch early next year.

The cost is going to be a more significant barrier for the platforms offering the highest-fidelity experience, like Oculus, PlayStation VR, and Vive — both in terms of VR hardware and the high cost of platforms necessary to run them (high-end computer, PlayStation 4, etc.).

Regardless of public readiness for virtual reality experiences, Samsung at the very least has distinguished its Galaxy line from the pack of Android products. Also, because Gear VR relies on a Samsung smartphone, the headset has an edge cost-wise, along with beating the rivals to market.

Pricing for the Rift hasn’t been announced yet, but Oculus VR’s Nate Mitchell, vice president of product, just set the floor at $300.

Although the lower-fi products offer a lower-price entry point, “these experiences will have more of a challenge in creating VR experiences that are exciting and don’t create user nausea,” observed Patrick Walker, VP of insights and analytics at EEDAR.

Beyond pricing, the success of a platform depends on compelling content, he said.

It will probably be a while before developers figure out which VR experiences work best for the broad consumer base beyond the highly supportive gaming community, Walker told TechNewsWorld.

“It took several years to determine what types of games work best on mobile devices,” he recalled.

Seeing Is Believing

As developers figure out what works for VR and what doesn’t, the market for the tech already is more conditioned for it than it was for other new tech innovations, according to Rod Martin, CEO of The Martin Organization.

“MP3 players, for instance, required an entirely new way to obtain and store music, and didn’t come with any obvious infrastructure such as the iTunes Store later provided,” he told TechNewsWorld. “VR just improves things we’re already doing: watching video, playing games, etc. So a compelling product with enough content should see rapid adoption.”

The GearVR and Google’s Project Cardboard appear to be focusing more on introducing the masses to virtual reality than more capable VR headsets like Morpheus and Vive and the Rift.

People likely will want more than an incremental gain from their 2D experiences, according to Martin, which is likely one of the primary reasons Samsung has allowed GearVR to support only its best handsets.

“I’m not buying a VR device unless it’s pretty immersive — otherwise it’s just an expensive hassle, like 3D televisions have proven to be so far,” Martin said. “People are going to expect something like the Holodeck on Star Trek. If they don’t get it, they’ll stick to their 4K TVs.”

People have been expecting high-fidelity visuals that pull them even deeper into the experience, but sensations like taste and touch and smell don’t figure to factor into VR anytime soon, beyond touch controls. Still, if the major players live up to half the hype, the burgeoning sector appears to be here to stay.

“Indeed, my one great concern about VR is that it is likely to become so immersive that a lot of people will treat it like a drug,” Martin said, “but that’s a problem for tomorrow.”

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