Samsung's virtual reality headset, dubbed "Gear VR," is available for purchase as of today. For those not following the last three years of virtual reality's return from obscurity, today is a big day: Gear VR is the first virtual reality headset available to general consumers. Though Sony's PlayStation arm and Facebook's Oculus VR have high-powered development kits in the wild, Samsung's the first major electronics company to go to market with a VR headset. Almost, at least -- the headset's full name is, "Gear VR Innovator Edition." In fact, when you buy the headset on Samsung's website, you have to agree to this condition: "I understand the Gear VR is an Innovator Edition device targeted specifically to developers or early adopters of technology."
So, what's the goal with Gear VR for Samsung? And what are its plans for the future? We asked Nick DiCarlo, VP/GM of immersive products and VR at Samsung, in an interview this morning. Head below for his answers, and for the full list of apps coming to Gear VR today.
ALL APPS ARE FREE ON GEAR VR AT LAUNCH. WHEN IS THE STORE COMING?
Building a business model for VR developers and filmmakers and everybody is super critical. It's some of the most talented people out there doing this stuff. It's something that's absolutely on our radar screen to do, and Oculus' as well. It's just a matter of: Let's get the basic product out there and that's something that can be quickly added. I think you'll expect to see that in early 2015. It's not gone unnoticed that that's missing for sure.
The whole input system -- to experience the startup experience, experience the navigation -- the input system is very new to people. And building a payment environment within that -- you can't just take an existing payment workflow and put it in. You've got to design all these things from scratch, and that's really been the driver of making sure the product got out there so developers have something to develop on. They couldn't even necessarily get their hands on enough DK2s [Oculus Rift's second development kit], and payment will come quickly.
WHAT ARE SAMSUNG'S GOALS WITH THE FIRST VERSION OF GEAR VR?
If this is not gigantic right away, we shouldn't be disappointed by that. The criteria that we're evaluating our launch by is, "Do the people who bought it like it?" We don't even really care how many we sell. It's about: Do the people who bought it like it. Is it comfortable? Do they feel like it's compelling? Is it something they're showing their friends? And that's really the key goal from this: learning.
We believe that the experience is very, very good right now -- it's perfect for you; it's perfect for me -- that's what we believe. But that there's always opportunities to improve things. The major smartphone OSes are still getting major overhauls in their seventh and eighth years. So it's the same thing where we don't want VR to be evaluated like an eight-year-old smartphone OS. The whole thing that we're trying to convey is that, compared to VR that's existed in the past, this is crazy amazing. But is this as polished as everything that you see out there in the smartphone space? Probably not.
HOW DOES CONSUMER RESPONSE AFFECT SAMSUNG'S PLANS GOING FORWARD?
This launch absolutely is no bearing on our go-forward planning for VR. Meaning that we're not measuring sales results to decide whether we go forward with this.
THEN HOW DO YOU MEASURE SUCCESS?
The gauge of success is about did people who bought it like it and did they not return 100 percent of them. It's as simple as that. If someone bought it and liked it and told their friends about it and thought it was cool? Awesome! If we get it back and everyone's like, "This doesn't work well; I don't like it; it's horrible." Then we know we've got a lot more room to improve than we thought. We think that we've hit the formula, but the idea is that we're able to move VR forward -- "existence-proof," to steal a word from John Carmack. VR exists! Thank goodness it finally exists! We think people are gonna really, really like it, but we know that there's a lot of room to continue to make it better and we will do that.
In terms of some of the product strategy things that you asked about, if I made VR perfectly free today, I had a million-app library and the goggles were free and we gave you a phone, it wouldn't necessarily make the market bigger.
Most people don't really know what VR is; they're not really interested in it. Part of this process is more that 40 years of technology evolution has now allowed for VR to exist, so now we have the hard work of culture. Is VR something I'm interested in? Is this something I want to buy? One of the things we've talked about a lot internally is, you've got a daily TV-viewing habit I assume, and a daily email-checking and Twitter-checking habit, but you don't necessarily have a daily VR habit, right? So part of what the cultural barrier to VR is, [is] how are you going to fit it into your life? Even if you're a "hardcore gamer," what minutes are you going to not use your Xbox or your PS4 or your PC to use this?
AS LONG AS YOU HAVE MORE COMPELLING EXPERIENCES, RIGHT?
Right, but it's got to compete in the 24 hours that everybody is limited by. So, building those behaviors -- even among the enthusiast community -- is really where this is starting. And so is the solution to make VR more mainstream making it cheaper? Or is it making it better? Is it making it better and easier? These are all nuances we'll have to explore as we go forward.
THE WHOLE 'PUTTING A HEADSET ON' THING IS A PRETTY BIG BARRIER
I'm certainly not smart enough to make the headset disappear -- is that more expensive or less expensive? 'Cause I don't even know what that looks like.
WHAT DOES 'INNOVATOR EDITION' MEAN?
A [product] review isn't sort of the target of this outcome, really. It's more about contextualizing that VR really exists for regular people today. Not for 300 million regular people, but regular people. That's the needle we're trying to thread coming out of the gate with this product.
Hopefully it's going to get better really fast. That's part of what we've been trying to get across and hopefully the kind of coverage we're able to get reflects that.
WHAT ABOUT THE PARTNERSHIP WITH OCULUS?
It continues going forward. Really, the partnership starts today.
We have to jointly prioritize what our next immersion technologies are. If you think about they've got head tracking on PC, because your PC has to be fixed somewhere in space. It's easier to have a camera that has head tracking. So head tracking, something that they've been pretty vocal [about], is necessary, but there's a whole bunch of other ones, right? Whether it's spatial audio, whether it's giving you hands like Leap or Nimble, body motion -- no matter what it is, whatever we choose to do, it needs software; it needs hardware; it needs developer engagement; and it needs to be the next thing that the audience of VR feels is missing. Not what any person's random opinion is. It needs to be what unlocks the next level of VR excitement. It really has to be a joint and community decision about what everybody is thinking. We added technology and whether a game developer or some other developer can't figure out how to use that technology in their application, then we probably shouldn't have put it in. So I really think of it being this community-level decision.
Launch apps/games as of December 8th, 2014:
OOBE/Intro to VR Oculus – Felix and Paul
Oculus Cinema – Oculus
360 Videos – Oculus
360 Photos – Oculus
Herobound – Oculus
Esper – Coatsink Software
Bomb Squad – Eric Froemling
Darknet – E McNeill
Viral – Fierce Kaiju
theBlu – Wemo Media, Inc.
Anshar Wars – OZWE
Proton Pulse – Zero Transform LLC
Titans of Space – Drash VR LLC
Romans From Mars – Sidekick LTD
Dreadhalls – Sergio Hidalgo
Ikarus – Uber Entertainment
Minotaur Rescue VR – Llamasoft, LTD
[This interview was edited for clarity.]