Samsung was the first phone manufacturer to embrace mobile virtual reality (VR) with its Gear VR headset in 2015. But when company executives announced Samsung’s newest flagship phones — the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ — at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this weekend, they didn’t even mention VR once.
Instead, Samsung touted new AI Emoji that mimic the iPhone’s Animoji, as well as its Bixby digital assistant, now capable of translating written text in real-time. Samsung also heavily emphasized the phone’s new camera, which comes with a dual aperture lens for better low-light performance.
At a press briefing in San Francisco Monday, company representatives also demonstrated the S9’s ability to shoot slow-motion videos, with the ability to record 960 frames per second at a 720p resolution — a frame rate three times higher than that of the iPhone X. Slow-motion videos shot with the new feature are automatically turned into 6-second clips, complete with background music.
Samsung representatives also clarified that the S9 and S9+ are compatible with the latest version of the company’s Gear VR headset, which it launched last year in conjunction with the Galaxy Note 8. Both phones also work with Google’s Daydream VR headset — but it doesn’t sound like the company has plans to launch a new Gear VR any time soon. What’s more, unlike in previous years, the company didn’t announce any pre-order deals that would include Gear VR give-aways.
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That’s in part because Samsung’s business relationships have changed. Samsung’s Gear VR is based on software from Facebook’s Oculus, and offers access to the Oculus store. It is widely believed that the initial agreement between the companies was mutually exclusive, guaranteeing that Samsung phones would only work with Oculus-powered headsets and that Oculus would only license its mobile software to Samsung.
Both companies have since struck partnerships with third parties. Samsung teamed up with Google in 2016 on that company’s Daydream VR platform, and announced last year that the Galaxy S8 and S8+ would be compatible with Google’s Daydream headset. And last year, Facebook announced a partnership with Xiaomi to produce the Oculus Go, a $200 standalone VR headset capable of running Gear VR apps.
What’s more, Samsung has also partnered with Microsoft for the production of a high-end VR headset powered by Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality software. That headset comes with inside-out tracking, which means that it allows users to lean into a VR experience, and is also capable of keeping track of the position of two handheld controllers.
In other words: Samsung decided to diversify its bets on VR — and notably deemphasize the Gear VR.