Virtual Reality Goes Mobile in Samsung and Oculus Rift Partnership

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At first glance, the new phone-powered Gear VR looks a bit like an 80s cell phone strapped to the face, which is part of the reason I think it feels like a portentous technology in its infancy. (See: An NPR broadcast in 1981 about headphones: “It looks stupid to me. Some people approve of it, you know. It’s fine if — privacy your home, you know?”)

The Gear VR is only compatible with Samsung’s Note 4 and unlike previous Oculus Rift headsets, doesn’t tether you to a computer. The headset straps on using velcro, and the Note 4 connects to the headset via a dock. It’s important that the headset is wireless, because consumers are accustomed to mobility (especially younger audiences) and tethered technology is on its last legs (I haven’t had a desktop computer since 2006, have you?). However, Samsung required reporters to use Gear VR sitting down so that they didn’t “inadvertently walk into things.” …..I can envision the PSAs 5 years from now: “Don’t Rift and Drive!”

The Gear VR’s integrated speakers play sound aloud, but it is compatible with wireless headphones. “Navigating menus, exploring worlds, and playing games is mostly done with head movements and taps on the side-mounted trackpad.” Gear VR will be on sale “later this year” and the price point hasn’t been announced yet.

Content for the Gear VR is accessed via its proprietary Oculus store. There isn’t a ton to choose from yet, but the demos for reporters included a Coldplay concert, an Avengers game that lets you explore Tony Stark’s lab, and a space shooter game. [Samsung] said it is working with a range of [content] partners immediately, including 20th Century Fox, Marvel, and Dreamworks, to create content for the headsets.

Vevo announced that it will partner with Samsung to create Gear VR 3D music videos. The live music experience is hard to replicate on video, but the immersive nature of Gear VR might solve that problem. Here’s an idea: sell Gear VR specific livestream concert tickets and experience a live concert in 3D from the comfort of your own home, in addition to the traditional in-venue IRL tickets. (You heard it here first!)

The potential of the technology in other verticals is equally as thrilling. Journalist Nonny de la Peña from USC Scool of Cinematic Arts has been working on virtual reality immersive news experiences, including a terrifying recreation of the death of Anastacio Hernández-Rojas that allows you to step into the shoes of a witness, who captured the police brutality on a cell phone in 2010.

Is Gear VR compatible content coming soon from your favorite YouTubers? Unlikely, unless given a huge financial assist by Samsung / Oculus Rift. Even then, driving audience from the YouTube platform to the Samsung Note 4 and then to the Gear VR is a lot of heavy lifting. FYI: YouTube has enabled 3D videos since 2012 and provides creators with a 3D auto-conversion tool. If you’re curious, here’s how it works. After two years, 3D on YouTube hasn’t really caught on.

Will it catch on?
Limited compatibility will hinder adoption; who do you know that has a Note 4? And who knows when Apple and Google to release their own (non-cardboard) iteration of the mobile VR headset complete with “software sandbox”? Likely soon, if they want to be competitive. Samsung has a head start, but Apple and Google have the audience already equipped with their phones. We might be looking at a hardware battle with the ferocity of the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD format war.

Also limiting: watching video on a phone or even on Google Glass allows you to multitask to a certain degree. You can watch video while on the bus or train using that hardware, but Gear VR is a closed environment. In order to see the real world, the rear camera of the Note 4 must be toggled “on.” It’s hard to take advantage of the mobility of a wireless headset when you can’t see where you’re going.

The Gear VR is certainly not the only virtual reality headset. “An growing array of cheaper, smartphone-powered headsets have been making it into the wild. The University of Southern California’s virtual reality lab has been designing virtual reality headsets for smartphones for several years, and has designed versions that can be made inexpensively on 3D printers. Google passed out cardboard headsets designed to work with Android phones at its I/O conference in June. And an obscure company called Vortex recently began selling $100 VR headsets designed to work for the LG G3.”

Total adoption of virtual reality technology feels quite far away, but Gear VR is significant progress. The tech-powers-that-be certainly envision a future that includes virtual reality. Why else would Facebook have paid $2 BILLION for Oculus Rift? Tech companies want to create a future composed of at least two actualities, virtual and real.

And so it shall be.

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