Until not that long ago, there were two big differences between high-end consumer virtual reality systems like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive and mobile systems like Samsung’s Gear VR—only the (much) more expensive headsets offered crisp, clear graphics and incorporated users’ hands.
That meant that the more costly systems offered a richer VR experience–everything from wielding a lightsaber to grabbing a ladder as you ascend an icy face on Mount Everest to controlling where you go in Google Earth VR. With mobile systems, the best interaction possible was looking at something and tapping a pad on the side of the headset to indicate a choice.
That changed last fall with the introduction of Google’s $79 Daydream View, which comes with a wireless handheld controller that allows users to point and click all kinds of things and directly interact with their VR experiences, although still not as rich an experience as on a Rift or Vive.
Now, Samsung’s latest-generation Gear VR, the release of which is timed to the launch of the Korean tech giant’s new Galaxy S8 phone, joins the party when it hits shelves on April 21. For $129, buyers can get a new Gear VR and a controller, while owners of previous-generations of Samsung’s VR headset can get their hands on the controller, which is backward compatible–useful, given that Samsung has sold 5 million Gear VRs–for $39. They can also buy a second-generation Gear 360 camera, which is smaller and more efficient (and shoots 4K video) than the first version. Samsung has not yet disclosed what the new camera will cost.
No one should mistake what’s possible with single controllers for mobile VR with that of high-end systems, which utilize dual handheld peripherals in positionally tracked experiences in which users can move around and do sophisticated things like paint or sculpt in three dimensions. Still, being able to incorporate even one hand is a big step forward.
As it has throughout the history of the Gear VR, Samsung turned to Facebook-owned Oculus to develop the headset’s (and now controller’s) operating system and software. The controller offers many of the same functions as that of the Daydream View–a touchpad, a home button, volume keys–and adds a back button and most important, a trigger that opens up many content possibilities for developers, from gripping and grabbing to holding to shooting.
Oculus’s head of mobile product, Max Cohen, says that there will be 20 Gear VR titles available at launch that were designed specifically with the new controller in mind, and another 50 coming in the next couple of months. But the controller will also work with all 700 existing Gear VR apps, essentially taking the place of the touchpad on the side of the headset.
Oculus also wanted to make the Gear VR user experience better in other ways, and it’s done so in a few key ways.
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First, it has scrapped the existing Oculus Home experience and built a new one from the ground up. The result? Users will be in VR within 2.5 seconds of popping their phone into the device–as much as three times faster than in previous generations. And once within Oculus Home–the launchpad for all content on the Gear VR–they’ll see much sharper and crisper visuals than before. It’s akin to improving from standard-definition resolution to high-definition, Cohen says. Unfortunately, those improved graphics won’t automatically extend to third-party VR content. However, Cohen explaind, developers will be able to create new content that has similarly improved resolution, though such content would likely consume more battery power than it would otherwise.
The new Oculus Home also features an in-line browser that will allow users to surf the web without taking off their headset. With the controller, they’ll be able scroll up and down, as well as type URLs on a virtual keyboard, and they’ll be able to follow hyperlinks from site to site. It’ll also be possible to watch videos on sites like YouTube.
There’s also a new Explore section within Oculus Home that will highlight certain content based on curation, personal rankings, and eventually machine learning, Cohen says.