Samsung Gear VR meets people

Three weeks ago I managed to purchase a Samsung Gear VR headset (based on the Occulus Rift model) and I've had that time since to play with it.

I've now had a chance to sit in the tail-gunner seat of a bomber and shoot down attacking fighters, to see what it looks like to be eaten by a shark, I've flown across waterfalls in Iceland and I've stood on a dance floor surrounded by a teeny-bobber band and jiggled about a bit. But mostly I've been interested in how the technology engages other people, and where it might be a few years from now.

The highlights

I've been extremely pleased by how most people have engaged with this technology. For the most part it is still in the 'wow' stage - showing someone a virtual cinema with a movie playing across a massive screen, whilst the light from the screen reflects realistically off the walls and ceiling often lead to dropping jaws. 

Children in particular have been a joy to watch as they engage with the Samsung Gear VR. One experience available shows you in a forest as a large Dinosaur slumbers. He then wakes, walks over, sniffs you and eyes you closely, before standing on rear legs to eat leaves that shower down around you. Watching the awe and engagement on children's faces as they experience this for the first time is nothing but pure magic. Another experience takes the viewer on a guided tour around an animated solar system, naming and talking about all the planets and moons - as the father of a son who loves science, I loved seeing his face as he toured the planets.

What seems to work best at this stage are animated experiences and games. Flying through a brain shooting at defective neurons and shooting balloons by looking at them are pretty fun, if basic. 

Overall, the experience is definitely more fun than I expected and more engaging than I'd hoped.

The lowlights

Whilst video experiences are good, they aren't perfect. Video quality is just a little too low, and everything feels quite blurry in many experiences. 360 static images are clear and crisp and you can look all around you, but the static nature fails to grab the imagination.

Battery life was an issue too, with two or three hours of play wiping out my phones battery completely - the Samsung Gear VR has a port that can accept a powering cable (if it's a Samsung one) but as those cables are short this is a relatively useless feature, in my mind - especially given that much of the use for the headset was taken either standing up, or twisting and moving about on a chair.

Strangely, the one experience I thought would succeed - a rollercoaster type ride - just made me feel ill and I quickly had to remove the headset.

Mostly though, it's the lack of content that I found to be an issue - understandable, given where the technology sits today, but still frustrating. Once you've gone through the few games and experiences available you're left hungry for more.

The UX issues

A virtual headset is an interesting interface to control. You can look to select/activate, and there is a small trackpad (to scroll and click) and a Back button (press back, press and hold for menu options). Technically that's enough to do the job, and it works - mostly. But the experience is not always ideal.

What's are you seeing?

The first and most repetitive issue I found was in trying to assist others in using the headset. I would load or prepare an experience, take off the headset and pass it to someone. Then I'd press the trackpad to start it. Usually it would work, but sometimes the person would look confused. I'd ask what they were seeing, and they'd describe something that made no sense - "It's all black - and there's a thing over there..."

Invariably I'd end up taking off the headset, figuring out what had happened and then resetting it, sometimes two or three times in a row. Since the trackpad is on the side of the headset it's incredibly easy to accidentally touch it whilst taking it off or putting it on someone else, or for them to hit buttons whilst adjusting the headset for comfort. Suddenly they're somewhere else entirely. 

My neck hurts

I also found an issue with viewing angles and centring of view. Sometimes the device would remember that I was looking north, for example. I'd hand it to someone who was sitting and they'd take over - only to have to sit sideways on their chair to get a 'front' view. Or, the view would shift as they used the experience, and they'd end up twisting uncomfortably to see everything.

Often, even just using the experiences on my own, I found it easiest to stand. This allowed me to swivel and turn without twisting my neck too far and causing neck-ache.

Not as inclusive as it should be

One area that really disappointed me was in the inclusive nature of the device. My current focus is on assistive technology for people suffering from dementia and related conditions, and I held the hope that a device like this could open up new vistas for them. I had the chance to try the headset with a dementia sufferer in his 70's, and was hoping the experience would be as impactful as it was for the children.

Unfortunately it fell relatively flat. Confusion at the interface and options was a big issue, but even when the experiences were 'loaded and placed on the head' there were issues with clarity (older eyes with poorer vision and focus) and also with swivel - whereas young kids and (to a lesser extent the rest of us) can turn the head and swivel to view all around you, older people tend to simply look front and centre and therefore miss much of the immersive nature of the experiences.

It's not a knockout failure - there were still smiles and exclamations, but it was not the hit I was hoping it would be. 

The future

Whilst the Samsung Gear VR is not perfect, it is for the most part a pleasurable device to use. The experiences it offers are not exactly the kind of thing you'd use for hours every day, but they definitely add something to your life and they absolutely have a lot of possibility.

Right now the content on offer is limited to games, media consumption (watching movies) and experiences (travelling down the Grand Canyon). But the future is bright with possibility.

I can easily see real estate business opportunities - for example showing you interactive 360 views and video from inside homes, offices, buildings, both real ones and modelled ones yet to be built.

I can see options for surgeons and trainees of all kinds, exploring interfaces and the world from within. For example climbing inside an engine, or pulling apart an airplane to see how it works. I can see trainers and experts providing their insight and expertise via immersive experiences and walkthroughs.

I can see options for psychology - using a headset to guide patients through experiences that might have emotional impact.

More than this though, I can see options for education and schooling. Having a headset lab at school would allow children in all parts of the world to experience what they might not get to see in their lifetime. Taking a walk on Titan, clambering over the International Space Station - or just learning about the deep oceans by actually going there.

The future is bright for VR - so bright, you've gotta wear the (VR) shades.