Samsung Gear VR: What can you do with it, and who is it for?

While gamers and PC enthusiasts wait anxiously for the release of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR later in 2016, the biggest name in virtual reality that consumers can actually buy right now is the Samsung Gear VR. Currently retailing for $99.99, the Gear VR requires a compatible Samsung phone (the S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+, and Note5 right now, and including Samsung's newest flagship phones when they are released). The phone itself acts as the screen, displaying the VR content which you view through the specialized lenses in the Gear headset. 

The Gear VR features volume controls and a directional pad on the right side, and provides everything you need to enjoy the content ecosystem Samsung and their partners at Oculus have developed. Though some specialized games do require a dedicated compatible controller (like the SteelSeries Stratus XL)  to use, the vast majority of what is currently out there can be fully experienced with just the Gear VR and your phone.

Once you have your Gear VR, setup involves attaching a compatible Samsung device, which will trigger software installation. You can then download content either inside VR or through your phone's normal interface, though for performance reasons we'll discuss later it's best to do as much downloading as you can outside of the virtual reality experience. 

What can you do with it? 

The Gear VR has its own ecosystem of apps, games, and entertainment content powered by an Oculus store browser. The games that are available right now are hit and miss, and are generally too expensive to feel worth the investment. It isn't uncommon to see games on sale for $10 which, once the novelty of their VR nature wears off, you won't get much lasting enjoyment out of. 

The best gaming experiences I had on the Gear VR were simple games that focused on doing one thing well. PolyRunner VR is an exciting experience in which you pilot a ship around obstacles, and the fact that the game can be controlled via your gaze, tilting your head, or a traditional controller is a nice touch. Shooting Showdown 2 is another highlight, exploring the mechanic of aiming a gun in a variety of creative shooting gallery experiences that grow progressively more elaborate. More complicated games, like the popular Dreadhalls and Anshar Wars 2, tend to feel cluttered and either under- or overwhelming on the Gear VR.

But while the Gear VR falls a bit flat as a gaming platform, it packs some surprisingly great experiences in the broader world of apps and entertainment. My absolute favorite Gear VR experience is an app called GrooVR, which turns your VR headset into the greatest music club/LSD trip you've ever experienced. In much the same way as the fantastic music-based indie game AudiosurfGrooVR places you in a digital world that reacts to your favorite songs, whether that world is an abstract void filled with swirling electronic lights or a ride down a river of liquid methane on an alien world. GrooVR works with Spotify and several other music services (though the actual interface is a bit clunky and it requires some work to access the exact songs you want), and if you've ever been interested in music visualizations it's an experience you won't want to miss.

Between Samsung's official apps and those developed by other agencies, the Gear VR also has a wide variety of 360 degree videos and images to enjoy. Though you can't move around in any of these experiences (aside from spinning in place -- make sure you have a good chair!), the quality can be impressive. The Oculus gallery of VR photos can be breathtaking, and a look inside an Egyptian tomb or underwater in a coral reef will make you an instant believer in the power of virtual tourism. 

The quality of the video content varies widely, and a disappointingly high percentage of what's currently out there amounts essentially to VR commercials (whether it be a VR trailer for Zoolander 2 or the announcement of a new Samsung phone). If you're willing to search a bit though, there are some true gems spread across the different services, with more coming all the time. Owning a Gear VR gives you a glimpse of the future of news and entertainment, with mini-documentaries bringing you up close and personal with events around the world and concert footage taking you on stage with your favorite artists. 

There are also short films out there to enjoy, including the horrifying Catatonic, which places you in a wheelchair being pushed through a nightmarish mental asylum. I'm a big horror buff and love scary movies, but watching Catatonic gave me a real sense of how intense and powerful horror in virtual reality will be—and I couldn't make it five minutes before taking the headset off and needing a breather. 

Finally, the Gear VR ecosystem is rich with apps and other "VR things" that defy easy categorization. You can look at the photos on your phone arrayed in virtual picture frames in a virtual hallway, if you want. You can swim with whales in TheBluVR. You can even dive into social networking with AltspaceVR, which definitely isn't the OASIS of Ready Player One but provides some basic idea of what we'll be seeing in terms of social experiences as VR matures. 

Overall, browsing the applications currently available for the Gear VR gives you a real sense of being a pioneer and an early adopter, with all the excitement and frustration that entails. Things aren't as polished as they will be in six months or a year, the truly great experiences are rare, and the total volume of content is limited, but the ecosystem is expanding every day. Samsung will be pushing the Gear VR hard in 2016 and beyond, and we can expect to see an explosion of content in the coming months as VR development ramps into high gear. 

Overheating and accessories

If you're considering the Gear VR, there are a few things you should know. First and most importantly, there is a known issue of devices overheating for some users during extended VR sessions. This isn't as scary as it might sound, and is something that can be dealt with through some common-sense tips and tricks.

Even the worst-case overheating scenario is only going to mean that your VR fun is interrupted by a warning screen, and you'll be required to take a brief break to let your phone cool down; we aren't talking about something where devices are getting damaged or catching fire or anything like that. To their credit, Samsung seems to have the built-in warnings set up to activate and shut down VR as soon as performance starts to degrade at all, rather than pushing the limits and risking real damage or nausea-inducing lag. 

On a lighter note you should know that, in order to get the most out of your Gear VR, you'll want to have access to a solid headset and a good spinning chair. We've discussed these accessories (and others) on GameCrate before, but it really can't be overstated that, to get the best possible Gear VR experience, you'll want a comfortable headset with good sound (please don't cheat yourself by relying on earbuds or your phone's external speaker) and a chair that spins freely. 

Who is the Gear VR for? 

If you're excited to experience the full potential of virtual reality gaming, you probably already know that the Gear VR isn't the device that will provide that. Without motion tracking or the power of a full gaming PC (or whatever the PlayStation VR will provide) the games it has to offer pale in comparison to what we'll get from the full-fledged, much-more-expensive VR systems coming later this year. 

For other non-gaming VR experiences though, the Gear VR is an attractive option. With consumer-focused virtual reality cameras now on the market, we're poised on the edge of a whole new world of content to enjoy, much of which will not require the robust features of an Oculus Rift to enjoy. The YouTubes and Flickrs of the VR world are going to explode in the next two years, and a Gear VR is an affordable way to make sure you're able to keep up with all the fun. 

The Gear VR is also a great choice for a role that might sound crazy at first: that of the second VR headset you have in your house. Once we start seeing Rifts and Vives in the wild, people will discover that watching someone else mess around in virtual reality is only fun for about five minutes. If you're going to be inviting friends over for VR parties, having a Gear VR or two (and compatible devices, of course) on hand is a great way to keep the fun rolling and to keep the downtime to a minimum. 

Finally, there are a lot of people out there for whom the Gear VR is exactly the right amount of virtual reality at this point. The VR world in 2016 is going to be a wild and crazy one, a new frontier full of experiments and failures. The head-tracking VR offered by the Gear already feels like science-fiction, and it's probably a better fit for a lot of consumers at this point than an expensive dedicated system. I bought a Gear VR for my mom and sister to use, for example, because I wanted them to have a sense of the revolution that is coming. They don't need a Rift or Vive right now, but they both love the Gear VR. 

Whether you're interested in it as a second VR headset, a well-designed pair of VR training wheels, or a dedicated system for enjoying VR photos and videos, the Gear VR is the best option you can actually buy and own right now, today. Provided you have a compatible Samsung device the investment needed is small, and if you aren't planning on being an early adopter of any of the more robust virtual reality systems the Gear VR will help you keep up with the emerging world of VR content in 2016 and beyond.