I’ve been warily curious about the resurgence of virtual reality and VR gaming ever since the announcement of the Oculus Rift. Well, here we are in 2016, and the world of VR has descended. Us regular folks can now get our hands on high-end VR gaming devices, such as the Oculus Rift itself, to lower end virtual reality devices, such as, in my case, the Samsung Gear VR. (Though the Gear VR is a Samsung-Oculus venture, so you get some Oculus benefits without the expensive headset.) When the opportunity arose to obtain a free Gear VR with the upgrade of my Samsung phone, I can’t exactly say I jumped at the chance. If anything, my only thought was “free is free, so why not!” Despite having watched countless hours of VR-related videos on YouTube in fascination, I honestly didn’t expect much from the Gear VR. Because really, how much VR fun could be obtained through a phone anyway? The answer turned out to be more than I expected.
The way the Gear VR works is simple, though the initial setup was a little cumbersome. The headset contains a space for your phone (it supports a range of sizes – I have the S7 and my husband has the Note 5, and it fits both phones), and a mini-USB connection to which it attaches. Once I plugged in and secured my phone, and then strapped the thing to my head, I was prompted to set up an Oculus account in order to download a suite of Oculus software. And that meant I had to remove the headset and my phone from it in order to do so. Why not just include instructions to download the software first? I don’t know. Maybe there were some and I just missed them. That would be typical.
Anyway, once I made the account and got the software, I was back up and running with the phone in the headset and the headset on my face. The first few minutes of playing around the Gear VR’s menus were nothing short of trippy. Since the background to the menus was a living room or sorts, it was incredibly weird being in my own living room and yet seeing a whole other space around me. I was a little worried that my vertigo might kick in, since it felt, to a certain extent, like I was floating in the menu space, but it didn’t, though it did take me a good few minutes to become adjusted to that odd VR “sensation.”
Navigating the Gear VR’s menus also takes some time to manage, as you have to use both your head, with your vision centered on a dot on screen, to move to various menu sections, and the touchpad that’s on the right side of the headset. (In that same vicinity is a back button and volume control. You can also connect a Bluetooth gaming controller to the device to use, but I’ve yet to get one. So my experiences noted here have only been with using the headset controls.) The touchpad, which is used by swiping up, down, left, or right, and which has an action button at its center, is sensitive enough, but it’s a hassle to use. It’s too easy to swipe in the wrong direction or accidentally hit the action button. Plus, for gaming, having to keep an arm propped up to use the thing is simply awkward.
Elbow pains aside, what of the Gear VR games catalog? Well not surprisingly, many of the most popular Gear VR titles, free or otherwise, focus on shooting things (usually while flying, and sometimes in space), horror situations, and…Minecraft. I’ve tried my hand…err, eyes(?) at an endless running game (Temple Run VR), and endless driving game (405 Road Rage), and endless smash-things games (Smash Hit), demos of few arcade-style “shooters” (InCell, InMind), one of those horror-esque titles (Dreadhalls, though it’s a puzzler too), and a number of different outliers and trials. Truly, there’s something for everyone here when it comes to games that run the gamut from poker to space shooters. And I’ve found my most comfortable space in, of all games, pinball. Yep. Stern Pinball Arcade. It gives you one table for free and three more to buy. So far it’s the only game among the whole lot that I’ve considering buying outright. Believe me, I’m a little surprised too.
So why pinball? To explain, I need to first discuss what it feels like actually to use the Gear VR. This has nothing to do with the quality of the games, but rather, the quality of physically being in a VR space. And that quality, for me, isn’t great. As I mentioned I’m prone to vertigo, and I have experienced feelings of motion sickness with a number of action-oriented games. (Helpfully, the comfort level of each game is noted in icons: green for comfortable, yellow for moderate, and red for intense.) But more than that, gaming with the headset is isolating and, at times, claustrophobically weird. Murf of Murf Versus said it best in a response to comment I left on his article The VR Dilemma: “It’d be like gaming in a closet.” That’s precisely it! Because though you may physically be in an open space and see an open space in front of you, in VR, it’s all about you and only you. Yes, there are multiplayer VR games, but even if you happen to be playing a VR game with four friends, it’d still be like each of you were sitting in separate closets. It’s lonely, for lack of a better term. That’s not to say that the games aren’t enjoyable and the whole concept of VR gaming isn’t truly amazing, because they are and it is! But the experience does have its downsides, and those downsides are likely to be unique to each individual.
Speaking of downsides, I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak a little about the headset itself, which, I’m sorry to say, is not the most comfortable thing going. Now, it is manufactured quite well. Its sturdy exterior is plastic, which keeps it lightweight, and the adjustable straps are quite adjustable, and my phone never feels like it’s going to fly out of its moorings. But the thing does not sit well on my face. I know my face and nose probably aren’t the pinnacle of perfection, but I didn’t think my features were that misshapen until I tried the Gear VR. The nose fitting is especially terrible, and I constantly have to adjust the whole headset so that the bridge of my nose doesn’t explode in pain. Also, padding that runs across my cheeks isn’t very padded, so when I take the headset off, I’m left with a set of facial “scars” that make it look like I’ve been in a knife fight. As a result, I can’t use the Gear VR headset for very long before it really starts to hurt. (Which is why a short game like pinball is much more appealing than a more extensive game.)
Compounding this is the matter of vision. Mine’s terrible – even with glasses I have trouble seeing sometimes. (In fact, my number one worry about using any VR device was the whole no-glasses thing.) The Gear VR has a small focus wheel installed on its top between the eyes, but you can only focus in or out so far. And with my stupid, broken eyes, I have to have the headset’s lenses focused all the way in. And it’s still not enough, because some things, especially text, remain fuzzy. I can’t spend long periods of time going through the Gear VR’s menus without getting eye strain. In game, it’s very hard to tell if any quality issues concerning blurriness I see are with me or the game itself. (And, well…when I see people playing the same games online, they look crisp and clear, so the problem is probably me.) Getting back to that pinball game, because the table is static, it easily allows me to focus my vision without feeling like I’m going cross-eyed. Also, the game doesn’t seem as blurry to me, and that’s probably because the only thing moving is the pinball ball.
Though I went into using the Gear VR with some trepidation, and though my face may not be made for the headset, I’m happy that I took the leap. There’s lots of promise in VR gaming, and the Gear VR offers us a chance to experience that on the cheap. Despite my negative experiences with it, which I’m sure will come into play if/when VR gaming really takes off, I plan to continue to use the headset regularly, to log in to see what new games are available, to play around with some of the crazy concepts that developers are developing, and, more than likely, to play pinball.
Have you tried the Samsung Gear VR or other VR devices? What do you think of the VR trend in gaming? Will it boom or bust?