The Gear VR kickstarted the mobile virtual reality boom, and now Samsung is making sure it doesn’t get left behind by VR upstarts like Daydream View. How? With a spiffy new controller.
After getting a first look at the revised headset and new controller at this year's Mobile World Congress show, I finally got to try out the headset/controller combo this week after the Galaxy S8 was finally revealed to the world.
With a selection of games ready for me to try out, and having given the controller a proper fondle, I've got a great idea what to expect when it arrives later in the year.
With a clickable touchpad at the top and a trigger on the back, the new Gear VR controller has more than a little whiff of HTC’s Vive and Google’s Daydream View. Which is no bad thing.
It’s dinky, but comfortable enough to grip, and has a slot for attaching a wrist strap - so you don’t send it flying while you’re wildly waving your arms about.
We’re expecting it to have all the usual accelerometers and motion sensors built into it, but with no tracking camera on the headset it’s unlikely to appear inside VR like HTC’s Vive controllers do.
It’s powered by two AAA batteries instead of USB C, like the Daydream View controller. With a lot of sensors packed inside the controller, it'll be interesting to see how long you’ll be able to play between replacements.
Quite how it’ll work once you’re in VR, though? That’s still a mystery. I’m guessing it might work like a wand, similar to how Daydream View works, but the clickable touchpad should also make scrolling through menus a lot easier than reaching up to the headset every time - even with the controller by your side instead of held out in front of you.
With a super-powered Galaxy S8 slotted into the headset, it's difficult to get a better mobile VR experience right now. The extra-wide display and better-than-QHD 2960x1440 resolution fills a big part of your vision, and the OLED panel means perfectly inky blacks and vibrant colours to really immerse you into games and videos.
The Exynos CPU/GPU combination was easily able to create smooth gameplay, so there were no problems with motion sickness or slowdown.
The controller came into its own when playing on-rails shooter Drop Dead, a zombie splat-em-up that takes quick reflexes and a steady hand. Hordes of the undead shuffle towards you, and you've got to put 'em back in the ground using your trusty six-shooter. The motion tracking felt accurate and the trigger was responsive, so I had no trouble lining up my shots and squeezing off rounds.
The simple controller does have a few limitations, though. With so few buttons, you had to point towards the floor whenever you wanted to reload your gun - it's just not as immersive as a RIft, Vive or PSVR setup. But then it's portable, and costs a whole chunk of change less, so I can't really complain that much.
The Gear VR headset itself doesn’t look all that different from the refreshed 2016 version, which arrived alongside the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 back in August.
It’s a little lighter now, with a few little changes to the front cover that protects your phone while you’re deep in virtual reality, but otherwise it’s roughly the same as before.
That means the same comfy material surrounding your face, and the same lenses that make the most of your phone’s QHD screen resolution. Things could still change between now and launch, though, and with no confirmed specs just yet, we don’t know if the field of view has been upped from 101-degrees for a more immersive experience.
There might be a controller in the box, but the headset keeps the old built-in touchpad, so you don’t need to hold something every time you want to try out VR. Just watching video? Put the controller down and scroll through menus using the headset.
Switchable USB connectors to make a reappearance here, too. My demo unit had the USB-C version installed, but it’s an easy job to swap it for a microUSB version. That means older Galaxy phones will fully support the new headset, and of course the new controller.
Samsung Gear VR with Controller by Oculus initial verdict
Getting to grips with the new controller gave a pretty good idea what to expect when the updated Gear VR officially goes on sale.
Better interaction was exactly what Gear VR needed, in light of Google’s excellent Daydream View headset, and Samsung looks to have delivered. Hopefully there are enough apps and games at launch to take advantage of the new hardware - 70 are apparently in development, which is a good sign.
The other good news is that existing Gear VR owners won’t need a brand new headset to get involved - the controller will work with your original hardware. Whether Samsung will be selling it separately at launch is a mystery at this point, though.
Now that the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ are official but Indian release dates are still not announced yet. We hopefully won't have too long to wait until this new Gear VR goes on sale as well. When it does, we'll be sure to bring you a full review.