Here’s the thing that sets Samsung’s Gear VR apart from the virtual reality headsets that are scheduled to hit the market next year: just about anyone can use the Gear VR to experience virtual reality with almost zero setup or special knowledge.
Samsung’s entry into the virtual reality market isn’t the most complex or versatile of the VR devices that will likely arrive in the first half of next year, but it is the easiest to use and understand. A few weeks ago, I took the Gear VR along to lunch with my wife’s three bosses so they could check it out. None of them had messed around with VR before. About 15 seconds in, they were enveloped in experiences like TheBluVr and Facebook’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens 3D video.
Samsung’s approach sets the Gear VR apart from other offerings, like the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR. Samsung is angling at creating “mobile VR”, a sort of lower-rent version of virtual reality. The way the Gear VR relates to other virtual reality entries is actually the same way that playing games on smartphones and tablets relates to gaming on consoles and PC, in fact—mobile VR is the lower-cost, more bite-sized version of what Oculus, HTC and Sony are bringing to the table.
And just like how playing games on phones and tablets has opened up a huge market of “casual” players to the gaming world, Gear VR and its simpler, easier-to-understand version of virtual reality has the potential to open up the idea of VR to people who’d normally not bother.
WHEN ‘CASUAL’ MEANS ‘UNDERSTANDABLE’
There are a few serious barriers standing in the way of anybody who wants to try to get into traditional video games. Even today, most games are extremely complex, and angled at people who are already familiar with games and how they work. If you’re new to the space, trying to figure out something like Uncharted or Halo can be daunting.
And intuitive as they’ve become to gamers over the years, video game controllers are still confusing devices to someone who’s not used to using them. They bristle with buttons and triggers; your typical PlayStation 4 controller includes no fewer than 11 buttons, plus two analog sticks, a directional pad and a touchpad, the functions of all of which you need to memorize. If you have little experience with a controller, playing even a relatively simple Mario game can be a frustrating experience with a significant learning curve. Lots of gamers don’t understand this, but it’s a fact.
Mobile games get a lot of derision from the more traditional gaming community for being thin experiences often packed with opportunities for developers to grift players for more money, but there’s a reason mobile games appeal to people who aren’t traditional gamers: a touch screen often makes a helluva lot more sense to someone who hasn’t played a lot of games.
“Gamers” might sneer at “casuals” who play phone games—and especially the moms and dads, grandmas and grandparents, and young kids who play them—but mobile gaming proves these people do want games to play. Traditional console gaming largely leaves this audience behind with systems, technology and interfaces that don’t make a ton of sense if you haven’t been immersed in them for years.
Virtual reality, in the form many people know it, is going to have a similar problem. Oculus is packaging its Rift headset with an Xbox One controller, for instance—a move that seemingly will make it easier for people to leap right into using the headset to play video games. But the inclusion of the controller highlights what few people will actually be in the audience for an Oculus when it launches. Rift is for people who grew up playing video games and still play them to this day.
The Rift and the HTC Vive will also use motion controllers more akin to what Nintendo created for its Wii console, but even those are the kinds of things that will require climbing up a learning curve to understand. Cool as VR might be, it’s going to have a barrier of entry problem for most people, especially those who are peripherally interested in games but who aren’t really “gamers.”
The one device that’s primed to serve those people, though, is Samsung’s Gear VR.
VR FOR ANYBODY
The new resurgence in virtual reality already takes a lot of cues from the rise of smartphones. Wearing a screen on your face that responds to your movements isn’t a new idea—there was a time in the early 1990s when VR seemed like it was just a few steps away from being available at the nearest mall—but all the VR tech that used to make headsets heavy and unwieldy now fits neatly in an iPhone.
Thanks to phone features like accelerometers and gyroscopes, you can already do something like virtual reality in mobile games and apps, moving the phone around to show different sections of a scene on the screen. In fact Gear VR is mostly just a smartphone with goggles attached. The $99 Gear VR headset is, mostly, just a pair of 3-D glasses. You snap one of four types of Samsung Galaxy phone into the headset and open compatible VR apps. It’s the phone that does all the computing of what you’re seeing and tracks your movement to give you that “virtual reality” feeling. The fact that all it takes to get into VR is a fairly cheap headset and a phone you might already own is a big part of what makes Gear VR so accessible.
The other part, though, is the way you control it. The headset includes a touchpad on its side that makes it easy to do most things, like navigate menus, fire up Netflix and select items in various programs. It’s a one-finger control that uses swipes and taps in an intuitive way, just like smartphones do with touchscreens. You don’t need a special remote or a gamepad to use Gear VR in most instances.
You can even play games using the little touchpad, and that’ll be the way your mom plays games in VR.
A NEW WAY TO PLAY CANDY CRUSH
Already the Oculus store (where VR apps live) on Gear VR is packed full of games. What’s notable about a huge portion of them is they don’t require a gamepad, even though you can play many or most of them with a bluetooth game controller if you have one.
Land’s End, for instance, is a VR game full of light exploration and puzzles, set in a beautiful but empty world. The game, from the creators of the award-winning Monument Valley, is controlled entirely with your head. You look at a dot on the ground for a moment, and then the game moves you to that spot. You stare at a special block, and you’re able to pick it up, moving it by moving your head in the direction you want to carry it.
Dead Secret is a more traditional 3D game in which you explore a house to find clues about a murder. It’s a game that’s all about picking up and examining evidence, but even though it looks like more complicated PC games it still doesn’t require a gamepad to play. Picking where to go and what to interact with is done with your head and eyes, and selecting objects requires just a tap of the Gear VR touchpad. If you want to go into a menu to look at your inventory, you can do that with a swipe up or down.
Even a game like Caldera Defense, which might otherwise be the kind of video game you play with a gamepad, doesn’t require one. Caldera puts players in a stationary turret shooting down incoming attackers like spaceships and missiles. And like many Gear VR games, it’s played mostly with head movements—guns are fired with the touchpad while the aiming is all in the eyes.
The point is there are plenty of games in the Gear VR Oculus store that can be played without a gamepad, and lots of game developers actively looking for ways to avoid it. There are still more traditional game experiences, with gamepad requirements, on the Gear VR, but unlike the world of console gaming, that level of complexity isn’t a requirement. And it makes sense that developers would look to explore new options, because if you want lots of people to try games on a new piece of technology, limiting who can use it to just people familiar with a gamepad makes no sense.
If virtual reality takes off, it probably won’t be because gamers embraced the tech, but because everyone else did. Gear VR may well represent virtual reality’s best chance, by providing your dad with a new way to play Candy Crush and your mom a new way to beat people down in Clash of Clans.
Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. He was hoping the latter would help him get Han Solo hair, but so far he’s been unsuccessful. He lives with his wife and annoying cats in Los Angeles.
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