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Looking at the future of mobile gaming with Samsung's new Gear VR

Nicole Lee , @nicole
05.08.15
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If you just got yourself a Samsung Galaxy S6 (or its curvier sibling, the S6 Edge) and you happen to be a fan of VR, well good news: the latest Gear VR for the Galaxy S6 is now officially on sale. It's still in limited rollout but it should be in your local Best Buy starting today for around $199, with availability expanding quickly to even more places. Introduced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the new headset is not only designed for Samsung's new phones, but also features a number of improvements over the original Gear VR for the Note 4. We had a chance to take a brief spin with the new hardware a few days ago, tried out a few new made-for-VR games and also talked to Max Cohen, VP of mobile at Oculus, for more on Gear VR's future.

Gallery: Samsung Gear VR for Galaxy S6 hands-on | 12 Photos

Not much has changed with the Gear VR from our hands-on in March, but we'll offer a brief recap of the hardware anyway. In comparison with the original, the new headset is definitely smaller and lighter, which befits the S6's more petite stature. The straps have also been redesigned for better weight balance and there's now additional padding on the rear strap for a slightly more comfortable fit. And unlike the original, the new headgear has a USB port so you can charge the S6 while it's nestled in. The focus ring adjustment now goes further in both directions plus there's mechanical fan to cool you down. From my experience wearing the device, I can also say the picture quality is excellent -- really sharp images with hardly any screen door effect at all.

Now on to the game demos. Cohen had me try out three new made-for-VR games that he thought would best represent the range of VR games that are now available for the Gear VR -- remember that you can now purchase and download these games from a paid app store. The first is a unique party game called Keep Talking and No One Explodes developed by Steel Crate Games. The person who's wearing the headset would be tasked with diffusing a bomb, while other people in the same room would instruct them on how to do so by using an instruction manual.

Gallery: Keep Talking and No One Explodes | 11 Photos

I played a brief stint of the game with a couple of colleagues at our San Francisco office, and it was a lot of fun, albeit stressful. I had to describe what I saw in each bomb module and then my co-workers would reference a rather thick user manual, ask me questions and talk me through what I needed to do while the clock was ticking. It reminded me a lot of Spaceteam or other collaborative games where players had to help each other, except in this case, I was the only one at the controls. Cohen says that this is a good example of a game that wouldn't work too well outside of VR, since it would spoil the fun if everyone else could see what you're seeing.

The next game I tried is Herobound: Spirit Champion, which is actually a sequel to Herobound: First Steps, a game that Oculus made last year. Developed by Gunfire Games, Herobound is essentially a Zelda-type adventure game where you fight enemies and complete puzzles and missions. Unlike the earlier game, I had to use a Bluetooth controller in order to move the character around and swing a sword. That said, I could still do things like look at a target in order to aim an arrow at it, which is something I wouldn't be able to do outside of VR.

Gallery: Herobound: Spirit Champion | 8 Photos

Last but certainly not least is a game called Omega Agent by Fireproof Studios, which is the same outfit behind The Room and The Room 2, a couple of excellent puzzle games for Android and iOS. Omega Agent is basically a secret agent jetpack game where, you guessed it, you get to fly a jetpack and shoot at targets. If that sounds ridiculously fun, well, it is. The visuals are fairly simple cartoony graphics but the sensation of flying around a city with a jetpack is . Cohen recommended that I sit on a swivel chair and turn on a "Swivel Chair" mode in settings (Yes, that's a real option) where the jetpack turns as you turn in order to reduce motion sickness. But, perhaps due to the somewhat low-res graphics, I still felt pretty dizzy afterwards.

"We believe in designed-for-VR games," says Cohen of the games I tried. Both Omega Agent and Herobound are available now (the former is $9.99 while the latter is free) while the Keep Talking game's pricing and release date are still to be determined. "VR builds more of an emotional connection than traditional media. You're more connected to the character. You get more a sense that you're there, more interaction," he says of the experience. "Initial titles were existing IP properties that were kinda mapped over. But the platform is maturing at this point," he says, adding that there's a bunch more content now on the app store even though it's only been out for a few months.

Gallery: Omega Agent | 8 Photos

As for the hardware itself, Cohen says that it's still technically an Innovator Edition, but that doesn't mean it's not consumer-ready. "[The Innovator Edition] label shows we still have work to do, but right now it's not nearly as much work compared to awhile back." Indeed, from the hardware perspective, Cohen says that they feel very good about the quality. The software is also starting to get there. "During the Gear VR for Note 4 timeline, a lot of the messaging was that the device was great but Oculus was telling you not to buy it. That's not the message here for the S6."

But that doesn't mean you should toss out the old Gear VR either. "Because the software gets updated, the Note 4 gets all the benefits that the S6 has as well." Some of those benefits include updates to Oculus Cinema, the ability to stream 360 photos and more. "The difference between this Gear VR and the one for the Note is not night and day. I wouldn't throw my Note away in the trash."

Indeed, Cohen offered a hint that we could be expecting even more out of the Gear VR team in the near future. "We're going to make VR accessible to a very large market," he says. "Our eyes are towards the fall. It's when we think consumer VR will really take off for mobile." While he wouldn't offer specifics, I have to assume there'll probably a new Samsung handset coming out later this year, along with possibly a new headset as well.

I also asked Cohen if progress on the Gear VR would affect anything over on the Rift side of things (which, incidentally, should finally roll out to consumers in early 2016). "We've learned a lot about what people want," he says. "How do people navigate, how do they purchase apps, do they want to purchase in VR or on their phones ... We're learning a lot on how to make the Rift experience better." Additionally, he says that a lot of the content on Gear VR can be ported over to the Rift and vice versa.

As far as non-gaming uses go, Cohen told us that Oculus has been experimenting with social cinema, or the ability to watch movies together even though you and your friends are spread out around the world. "I personally think social interaction is one of the most compelling usecases for VR," says Cohen. "Watching a movie together, going through photos, watching cat videos ... Having that emotional connection and presence as if they're there with you. I think that's what's going to drive VR usage." Indeed, the potential for social VR is one of the reasons Facebook was so interested in Oculus, and it's also a key reason as to why Oculus agreed to be a part of Facebook.

However, the team's main focus is still games. "I take it with me when I travel," says Cohen, adding that he sometimes wears it on the plane. "It lets you escape the confines of your economy class seat and feel like you're in a huge space." He did offer a warning if you plan on doing this though. "Just remember that you're wearing a headset and not to whack the person next to you."

For even further impressions of the latest Gear VR for the Galaxy S6, stay tuned for our full review.

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