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Samsung’s Gear VR Shows A Lot of Potential, Still Best for Early Adopters

You know a product is compelling when after what feels like no time whatsoever, the company spokesperson giving you the demo starts to gently tell you that it may be time to move on. That’s exactly what happened to me when I recently got invited by Samsung and Oculus to try the consumer version of the Gear VR headset, which Samsung is starting to sell for $100 this Friday.

During that first demo, I was playing “Lands End,” the virtual reality puzzle made by Ustwo, the same game studio that has brought us the immensely popular mobile game “Monument Valley.” For VR, the Ustwo has taken the same spirit of serenity that made “Monument Valley” so special and brought it to a coastal landscape full of wonderous stone sculptures. I’m a declared non-gamer, but “Lands End” immediately sucked me in, and made me want to keep going longer than Samsung was willing to host me.

Luckily, I had some time to try the Gear VR at home for a week, thanks to a test unit supplied by Samsung — and I swear, I didn’t just spend it playing “Lands End.” While exploring the device and the games and experiences offered through it a bit further, I got to see what’s great about the Gear VR, what could disappoint consumers looking for a holiday gift, and what the device tells us about the potential for mobile VR.

First, the facts: Samsung is selling the Gear VR as a $100 virtual reality headset that works in conjunction with some of the company’s more recent handsets (the Note5, S6, S6 edge and S6 edge+, to be precise). Samsung has developed the headset together with Facebook-owned Oculus, which is in charge of the Gear VR software platform and download store. Both companies previously sold an “innovator edition” of the Gear VR for twice the price.

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Hardware-wise, the Gear VR headset is fairly comfortable to wear. It features a simple dial to adjust the focal point of its lenses, but I often had a hard time getting it to stay in focus, and found myself frequently adjusting the distance to my eyes manually by moving the headset around in front of my face. The touchpad, which is located on the right side of the headset, also didn’t really seem intuitive, but may just require a bit of a learning curve. Gamers can also opt to control the Gear VR with a Bluetooth game pad, which has to be bought separately, but definitely improved the experience in more fast-paced gaming environments.

Once a consumer puts on the headset, he finds himself looking at the Gear VR home screen, which lists installed apps and offers access to the Oculus store. I found the home screen acceptable as a launchpad, but had a hard time using it to discover new content. Browsing cover art tiles for games and VR experiences just isn’t a very satisfying experience when wearing the headset. Luckily, the store is also accessible on a phone that’s not inserted into the headset, and actually offers a lot more details about each title, plus content categories, which are sorely missing from the headset experience.

The existing experiences on the Oculus store can be roughly put into three buckets: there are games, and lots of them, cinematic VR experiences, and apps that let you consume traditional content with the Gear VR. Let’s take a closer look at each of them:

Games are clearly the strong suit of the Gear VR. There is “Lands End,” which is definitely addictive, and then there are titles like “Eve: Gunjack,” a VR arcade shooting game from the same folks that have made “Eve: Online.” Again, I’m not really a gamer, but “Eve: Gunjack” impressed me with great graphics and fast-paced action that rendered without any stuttering. It’s definitely a highlight of the Gear VR, and one of the reasons why gamers will really like this device.

Cinematic VR experiences are also plentiful on the Gear VR, thanks in part to Samsung’s own Milk VR app, which offers access to 360-degree films from USA Today,  Lionsgate and Discovery VR. There are also standalone cinematic VR apps, with experiences ranging from Cirque du Soleil to the New York Times Magazine’s documentary about refugee children to a performance of the LA Philharmonics orchestra. Without commenting too much on each title, I have to say that the overall experience for cinematic VR still seems pretty scattershot, and not like something that would get me to regularly use the Gear VR, let alone buy one.

That’s in part because there are many random one-off clips and experiences, but not much that would get you to come back on a regular basis. And at least right now, the balance between effort and payoff just seems off: I often had to spend 10 minutes or longer to download the media files necessary to run an experience, only to watch in its entirety in two minutes. Some apps, including Milk VR, try to solve the download problem by also offering streaming, but the quality was often severely compromised. And overall, the selection of content just seemed too random and too varying in quality.

The good news is that some of these non-gaming experiences were still really compelling, and interestingly, it wasn’t always what you’d expect. One example is “Colosse,” an animated short that involved a hunter and a giant in a kind of arctic wonderland. Another caught me even more by surprise for its simplicity: “Strangers” from VR studio Felix & Paul simply showed Canadian singer-songwriter Patrick Watson perform a song in his home studio. But the piece succeeded in creating a very unique sense of intimacy that really made you feel like you were sitting on Watson’s sofa, near the dog, listening and seeing creativity unfold.

Media consumption apps make up the final category of apps available on Gear VR. The Oculus theater lets you watch streams from Vimeo and Twitch, and a Netflix app basically puts you into a virtual living room, complete with a virtual TV to watch Netflix on. It’s mildly compelling, but I also found this the type of app where I most noticed difficulties to keep the Gear VR in focus. Images just don’t look as sharp when watched on a phone that’s a few inches away from your eyes to begin with, and the focus issue seemed to get worse a few minutes into a TV show.

However, Oculus is also offering a social app that lets you tap into video streams while voice chatting with friends, which could more than make up for some of the quality issues, provided that there are actually people on the platform you’d want to watch TV with. Plus, other companies have committed to releasing even more complex social experiences for the Gear VR.

Overall, the Gear VR still feels a bit like a work in progress, especially for users that are interested in more than just gaming. It’s not just the lack of titles; there are also frequent reminders that you are really just staring at a phone — like the Android virus scanner notifications that kept popping up on my test unit ever so often, interrupting otherwise immersive experiences.

The good news is that a lot of the current downsides of the Gear VR are software-based, which means that the experience will likely improve over time. One example: Oculus has been working on improving the quality of video streaming for VR, which should go a long way towards making cinematic VR experiences look better without endless download times. And the Gear VR definitely has a few games as well as non-gaming experiences that show the potential of mobile virtual reality. More of these, plus potentially a few improvements to its in-headset store, and you’ve got yourself something that could be pretty intriguing.

Is that enough to make me go out and buy a $600 Samsung phone, plus a Gear VR headset, just so I can play some more “Lands End?” Probably not. But I’d easily spend the $100 on the headset alone if I already had a compatible phone in my pocket.

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