Last year's Gear VR virtual reality headgear for the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 was never launched here, so this year's version, for use with Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge phones, is, technically, the first virtual reality headset to go on sale here.
The caveat is that this Samsung device works only with an S6 phone. You cannot pair it with your computer to enjoy virtual reality games or movies.
The Gear VR is basically a shell, housing fixed lenses that amplify the split-screen footage displayed on the phone.
The phone is slotted into the goggle-like frame that sits over your eyes and is held in place by straps that go over and around your head.
The top of the goggles has a scroll wheel for users to focus on the image. On the right side, there is a back button, volume controls and a mini trackpad.
When you put on the goggles, a proximity sensor detects a face and switches the screen on. It will automatically shut down when the goggles are removed.
If a call or text message comes in while the Gear VR is in use, a pop-up message appears. You can connect earphones to the phone to enjoy the content in private.
First-time set-up takes a while. It involves the download of the Oculus app, which is a store for other apps, to your phone. When you launch some of the apps you download there, you will realise that they need to either go through an installation process or download more content.
This is no plug-and-play gadget. I took off and put on the goggles multiple times. There is no indicator as to which apps require additional downloads or which needs Wi-Fi connectivity to work. One file prompted me to download a 2.3GB file and there was no way I was going to leave the unit on my head the whole time.
Content via the Oculus app comes primarily in two forms - games and educational videos. Some require the use of a Bluetooth controller to work.
There are several interesting apps offered, but quite a few exemplify the pitfalls of VR.
For example, the Dreadhalls horror game, which has players explore a massive dungeon, has low-resolution graphics and a low frame rate. Imagine turning your head only to see the change in environment as if there was a massive strobe light flickering overhead.
Transitions in the game were not smooth. This issue, combined with a large immersive world, gave me one of the biggest headaches within the first five minutes of roaming the halls.
Samsung also launched a Milk VR app that offers immersive panoramic videos, but it is not available here. There is a way to get the app, but there are two good reasons not to.
One is that you will need to fire up the Oculus app after connecting your phone to a virtual private network (VPN) app that identifies your location as being in the US. Even after the Milk VR app is installed, you need to launch a VPN connection each time you want to access Milk VR.
The second reason is that the content is not worth the effort.
Oculus and Samsung have populated the Oculus app with enough interesting games and apps, though you have to spend more money to buy the good ones.
The Gyeingju VR Museum app, which is free, offers nice 3D models of some historic buildings in South Korea.
I also enjoyed Temple Run VR game, which is also free. Its gameplay is the same as the non-3D version, except that you can now enjoy it from first-person point of view.
Is this the new face of mobile immersion? The potential is there, but no one, not even Samsung, is using it to the fullest.
The downsides: virtual reality will bleed the phone battery pretty quickly with the phone getting pretty hot after just 30 minutes of use.
The lenses on the Gear VR can fog up, so you will need a cloth handy to clean them.
Some games are fun, but do not expect to use the Gear VR for more than 30 minutes at a time.
Size: 96mm x 107.9mm x 82.9mm
Sensors: Accelerator, gyrometer, proximity (mount/unmount detection)
Field of view: 96 degrees
Coverage: 54mm to 70mm (fixed lenses)
Value for money 3/5
GAMES ON THE GEAR VR
Shooting Showdown 2 Free
This is one of the more enjoyable games on the Gear VR. Think of it as a shooting range with the trackpad or a separate controller as the trigger of your gun.
Aiming is simple. Either use a controller, or simply look at the target to aim. I looked at the target and used the controller just to shoot.
Naturally, the game is not that easy. An aiming reticle will appear to show the area where the shot can land, so a player needs to adjust his aim by shifting his head.
The different shooting ranges have practice and versus modes. Beating another player in versus mode wins you gold bars, which you can use to upgrade your firearms or to buy new ones.
VR Karts: Sprint $4.99
The idea of an immersive, first-person view lends itself well to driving games. Instead of peering at the screen for a route map or trying to anticipate turns, players can now keep their eyes up front and watch out for upcoming bends on the road.
As this is not a Formula 1 type of racing game; the controls are simple. Accelerate clear of the pack and you can pick up speed boosts along the way, as well as shields and mines to slow down your opponents.
If you attempt short cuts by going off track, the screen dims and your kart slows to a crawl. Keep an eye on your side mirrors to prevent your rivals from overtaking you from behind.
The graphics are simple and smooth, and do not cause much motion sickness. Alas, this game is not that popular - in several online races, I found that mine was the only race kart and so I was the undisputed champion.
Protocol Zero $4.99
Stealth video games, in which characters sneak around quietly to complete objectives, are common now, but one can cheat by shifting the in-game camera's perspective to get a bird's eye view of an area.
In Protocol Zero, players can see only what is in front of them. Instead of being free to roam, they can move only to pre-determined checkpoints on the ground and must turn their heads to see what is around them.
A bad guy can be dispatched with a gun, but only if no one spots the dead body lying on the ground, so shoot only when no one else is looking.
And if you run out of places to sneak around in, just look around you. A checkpoint marker might pop up right within your field of vision.
The game itself is not difficult, but the act of actual exploration is now set to become a bigger element in this genre.
This article was first published on June 24, 2015.
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