A too-long and overly-opinionated guide to GearVR

VR_CinemaTheatre

My plan was to keep using my old phone until it broke, or there was a compelling reason to upgrade.

There became a compelling reason. This article is about that.

Yesterday I described how I set up that new phone and today I’ll describe setting up it’s Gear VR and go over the the current state VR seems to be in.

Gear VR

I got the basically-toy “google cardboard” VR set for Xmas and built a virtual reality scene over the holidays coz when I find a system I try to figure out what I can do with it.

That’s what new things are for, right?

And it was all quite exciting but it was also obvious that my four year old phone wasn’t going to cut it. It’d need something with more power. So I pondered upgrading just for speed.

Then Oculus said their new high-end Rift headset I’d been looking forward to was gonna cost six hundred dollars. And more importantly was probably not even gonna be very Linux-able. Maybe not even Mac-able. Instead, at least to start with, it would require crazy-PC, running Windows.

Windows FFS!

So, okay. Oculus have asked me to vote.

To decide between Android-VR available today and Windows-VR available in a few months at six times the price running on a platform I swore off of nearly twenty years ago.

I voted.

gearVR

The S6 combined with Gear VR is the best consumer VR system available now, and I was gonna need a new phone anyway.

It costs about a hundred quid (on top of about 400 for the phone), and like “Cardboard” you plug your phone into the back of it. The Samsung one has extra sensors inside the face plate to help with tracking, as well as some buttons and stuff and plugs into the USB.

I’m not the type to get car-sick, or to vomit over a roller-coaster, or to wretch at the turning of a ferry on the waves. I suspect (with low confidence) that I’d do a vomit-comet ride without throwing up.

So let’s plug it in and see how much better it is…

VR_Warning

Installation

A voice tells me to unplug it and go install the app first.

Given they include bloody Skype in the apparently-undeleteable list of apps that suck up space, it’s surprising that Samsung’s VR app is not already installed really.

Agreements
Agree to terms and conditions, then wait for a long download.

And finally, I get an Oculus account. Hurray. Wanted one for ages, but never been any point before. Woot!

Oculus Registration

When registering I’m asked not only for the usual litany of details: Name, Age, Email etc, but also for a PIN.

Why? For what purpose? How is this not just another password? Which will be the master password?

Turns out the main password is the master password, the PIN is for use inside the store in VR so you don’t have to type your password with your virtual-nose, moving your head to select each key.

More Install

Apparently that one install wasn’t enough, and they want more install.

Boo!

Too many install!

VR!

And we’re in. There’s an actual 3D-environment around me and it is so much better than the old 20-quid Google cardboard thing.

VR_Library

Field of view is so wide you hardly see the edges. The blurriness from the poor lenses and poor pixel-counts of old Cardboard-on-3-year-old-phones is gone. Tracking is actually working properly and not slowly drifting away.

This is actually pretty amazing.

Woah.

The face-plate has a sensor on the side, and you can swipe that sensor up or down or left or right or tap it. Bit tricky to do at first till you get used to where that little direction-pad is. You can’t kinda peer around your own face to see where you hand is.

I soon become accustomed though.

VR Interface: Gear

Looking around is a damned fantastic interface into a world, and with a gestured nod or a shake of the head you can even talk back with it rather than just point.

But it’s not enough.
Joystick

Sure, it’s enough to pick a movie or scroll through some options but not enough for a game. You’ll need a Bluetooth controller too, obviously. I had one ordered within a day or so. I liked this one with a phone-holding clip so it can be used outside VR by clipping on the screen too.

Media

Well, since I’d made a quick 3D-360 video before I owned the Gear VR and pushed that up into Youtube first thing I wanted to do was watch my own stuff on my new hardware.

But that’s not as simple as viewing the video in the youtube app and hitting a “VR” icon. That’s how “Google Cardboard” works, sure. But Samsung don’t make the Youtube App, so they can’t add their own button.

Youtube

VR_Web

The solution is our first VR App for consideration today, the confusingly titled “Samsung Internet Beta”, which is a web-browser window in your virtual world. You can navigate that to YouTube and THEN see YouTube’s 360 3D content.

Which works okay in theory. Though in practise doesn’t yet allow 360 and 3D at the same time, and demands a left/right encoded 3D rather than the top/bottom encoded I published.

Which is annoying, but that word “beta” in the title is there for a reason I guess.

VRideo

VR_Vrideo

There’s always the dedicated VR-Video sharing site Vrideo though and this is nicer that the half-hearted Youtube/web interface.

So I set up The Tentacles VRideo Chanel, uploaded that little test scene and after a bit of faffing (VRideo’s Left/Right 3D encoding wasn’t working at the time, they said it’ll be fixed soon) that was working pretty well.

VRideo still seems small, though it’s getting new videos most days. Some of the most impressive VR Video I’ve now seen came from the VRideo stream. Including A Ghost In The Shell clip, beyond the sky, and This weird VR Graphic-Novel comicbook thing: Dirrogate.

Samsung 360 Videos

Samsung have their own video player, which comes with a bunch of videos but is mostly meant for side-loading your own.

It failed to play most of the videos I threw at it though, including the ones I made myself. It finds it hard to tell if a video is 3D or not, or if they’re 180 or 360, and so may wrap the scene too many times around the viewpoint, or show two versions above and below.

VR_MoonTheatre

Milk VR

MilkVR will play everything you throw at it, so long as you name the files properly. For example:

File ends in “_180x180_3DH.mp4” for 3D-Horizontal, 180 degrees or file ends in “_360x180_3DV.mp3” for 3D-Vertical split, 360 degree.

So long as those key-characters, “_180x180” or “_360” or “_3DV” or “_3DH” are in the filename, it’ll assume the video it plays is encoded that way.

However, MilkVR is restricted to the USA for insane copyright reasons so in order to install it in the UK we have to first configure the machine to pretend that it’s in America for a moment.

Hola

Install “Hola”, which is a free Virtual Private Network.

Open Hola, select “My App/Oculus” to run the Occulus app, routing all traffic through the USA so it looks like it comes from there.

Search for “Milk VR”, install it.

Disconnect from Hola in the notifications.

I assume that the reason none of the featured videos in MilkVR work for me is because I’m no longer pretending to be in the USA.

Oculus Video

VR_OculusVideo

Not so much for playing 360-degree or 3D movies, but for viewing normal 2D movies inside a virtual cinema. When I asked why anyone would want to do that I was told apparently people might want to do that kind of thing in a plane? Or if they’re trapped in a cupboard?

However, it will also play Facebook’s 360 videos and some 3D movies too, and comes with a decent selection to start with. The GUI environment is miles above the others.

But again, it won’t play everything I throw at it.

Netflix

Similarly you can watch Netflix in a virtual living room. Haven’t currently got a Netflix subscription so haven’t installed that.

Gear VR Gallery

There’s an app for viewing all your photos and videos that you took with your phone, “Gear VR Gallery” which is also capable of viewing some but not all 3D or 360 photos and videos.

360 Photos

The most impressive single-frame VR environments I saw were the OTOY examples in the 360 Photos app, rendered by the Octane 3D renderer. These seem to be in a cube projection format rather than the circular projection that all the videos choose.

A word on projections

The cubic projection format that OTOY and Octane chose for their 3D 360 photos seems to work better than the circular projection that all the videos choose.

They’re very high resolution, and the six-sidedness of a cube means that the accuracy of the view is enhanced at just the six points you’ll be mostly focused on.

Spherical projections lose lots of detail at top and bottom and don’t do well if you peer up or down and also rotate your face but the cube projections all handle that great.

Of course Games don’t suffer any of these issues at all, they’re not trying to squeeze every possible eye-position into a couple of 2D planes. They can actually plot it right, and you never end up cross eyed.

Video Summary

All these VR-Video apps have faults. Milk VR plays everything except for it’s own featured videos if you’re outside the US and it’s a pain to install. Everything else fails on at least one type of video you may want to play.

So while you can do anything you might want to be able to do, it’s a faff trying to remember which of these apps might do it.

Hopefully they’ll all improve over the coming year.


Games

In the order of how awesome they are, most awesome first. Some of them you can play with just the headset, but obviously these are going to be the most boring and rubbish of the games. You really will want a Bluetooth Gamepad Controller.

Omega Agent

VR_OmegaAgent-Home

Price: A tenner? Ish? I forget.

In which you play a spy in a jetpack and I learn that if I had a jetpack I’d spend a lot of time trying to perch on top of tall building’s aerials.

Omega Agent is the game that’s come closest to making me feel a bit queasy, as I fly rapidly around the little town dropping from way above the skyscrapers roofs to down at the ground at basically freefall speed.

It’s just so much fun flying around exploring this island city and it’s caves systems, finding all the little puzzles and figuring out how to solve ’em.

VR_OmegaAgent-Play

Best controlled with the “Swivel Chair” option, if you have one. Much more tricky when you have to use a joystick to spin.


Anshar Wars 2

VR_Anshar
Price: About a tenner.

You can play the free “Anshar Wars 1” to get some idea, but 1 misses all the story and variety that you get with the full game.

Space-ship flying around crazily unrealistically crowded but beautifully cartoonishly rendered asteroid fields and stuff. The team send you on missions that mostly involve flying around shooting other space-ships.

Swivel-chair play basically essential with this one. You might get away with standing but you need to look behind you and turn around far too much for a couch to work.

If you ever watched Star Wars and wanted to be in that little gun-pod aiming the turrets at the X-Wings as they fly by then this is what you wanted. The swivel chair play just feels way like doing that and after a bit of practise you can make that ship stop on a dime, turn around and blow up the ships previously chasing you.

Top fun shooter.

Edit: Dead Secret

[March 2016:]
I’ve played Dead Secret as well now. It’s a murder-mystery VR point-and-click adventure game. Sort of. Never really played anything quite like it before.

I got some of the biggest fright-jumps ever out of it, been entertained and puzzled without being too-puzzled all the way through it. Got stuck enough to have to look up the answer once. Very early. So glad you can just turn to the internet when you get stuck on these types of games now. Used to *hate* them for just not being able to progress.

[End Edit]

Herobound, First Steps

VR_HeroBound

Price: Free.

A dungeons and ridiculously cute orcs 3rd person slash-em up. Good fun to play, pretty to look at and you can safely play it on a couch knowing the action isn’t going on behind you.

Really pretty long for a “first steps” free demo. Three big levels of dozens of rooms each.

Can be a bit disorientating as you wander from room to room and wonder where your little character will appear in the next one. Some kinda transitory animation would have helped.

Sometimes your character feels a long way away, surely taking up so few pixels you can barely see his shape. But when he’s there, up close, under your nose the attachment to the little guy goes way up.

Totems in Dreamland

Price: Free.

A puzzler which is uncomfortable to play for long coz of the way so much of the action happens above your head and you have to tilt your head so far back. Maybe I should have tried playing lying down!


Rosebud

Price: Free.

Special mention her for Penrose Studio’s “Rosebud” which isn’t really a game, but does have some interactivity to the beautiful animated cartoon story in that you can move the planet on which it takes place.

Beautiful, just awesomely beautiful, it made me squeal in delight and watch it over and over again.

Dreadhalls Demo

Price: Free.

Wonder around a large and apparently haunted mansion getting the willies scared out of you.

Was good fun exploring the world, and had some genuinely scary moments, but I missed having a weapon too much. I wanted to hit back, even if ineffectually.

There’s a full game, but it’s low on my purchase-list coz while I liked the exploring, I hated having to flight instead of fight.

James’s Legacy

Price: Free.

A globe shaped game-board floats in front of you and your little lego-type character moves around, the world turning under his feet as he walks.

Cute little puzzler. Just a demo of a full-game to be released soon but so cute, especially the penguins that occupy the orbiting planet which ends up really close in to your face.

Yes, they have spelled it “James’s” which looks weird.

Smash Hit

Price: Free.

Strange game. You get flung through a flight between glass and crystal obstacles armed with nothing but loads of ball bearings. Throw them to smash the glass before the glass smashes into your face.

The levels where it turns as it flies forwards made my stomach yawn the way it does when you go over a hill too fast in a car. Another one where I can see how that’d be too much for most people but made me squeal with laughter.

So much broken glass.

Temple Run VR

Price: Free.

Really simple game to play, basically a 3-lane choice of where to be at any time with a jump button.

You pick up a prize like Indiana Jones then the monsters come and you run like hell.

Peering back over your shoulder to see how close the monster running after you is really fun.

The game’s a bit too simple for my tastes though. Doesn’t have more than half an hour’s play in it. Really good to look at mind.

Jake and Tess’ Finding Monsters

Price: Free

A game where you take photos, which does feel kinda like a natural thing to do in a virtual world with a single button attached to your headset.

The monsters run about and play, and you gotta snap ’em when they’re doing certain things. You can encourage them by popping the little speech-bubbles they throw out now and then.

Feels like a game for kids, which is odd given the warnings not to let those under 13 play at all when you boot the system up.

Romans From Mars 360 3d Demo

Price: Free

A game similar in many ways to Missile Command, only with far more impressive graphics.

You gotta blow up the Martians before they get to the castle walls.

Was amusing for about as long as they demo lasted, was getting a bit bored of it by then.

Games Summary

Those games are all proper cool, the top two especially. Haven’t mentioned most of the demos/previews I’ve looked at for while they’ve been often impressive demos, they’re not much more than that. Lacking story or depth.

Here’s some I still haven’t played but are on my list. I’m therefore obviously guessing at their genre or what they’re about.

  • Herobound: Spirit Champion – Full Herobound game
  • Into The Dead – Zombie Game
  • Escape Velocity – Some kinda space puzzler?
  • Neverout – Escape puzzles
  • Gunjack – Space Shooter
  • Orion Trail – Cartoon Trek-Style spaceship bridge

Social

Facebook own Oculus of course, and Facebook seem to be aiming, eventually, for roughly the “Metaverse” from Neal Stevenson’s Snowcrash. A virutal landscape in which you can meet people, chat, perhaps fight. A “second life” for VR.

There’s a couple of apps aiming for this kind of thing at the moment.

Oculus Social

The plan here is that you and your buddy hang out watching movies together. So you sit in the theatres from Oculus Cinema and can both see the same video synched, both see each other’s avatar-mask.

The masks movem tracking the user’s heads in realtime, and you can be pretty expressive with just a nod or a shake or a tilt as you speak.

You can watch Twitch or Vimeo together, your friends talking over it just as if they were there annoying you in real life!

I chatted for about five seconds before I realized I wasn’t interested in talking to the random strangers it paired me with.

Vtime

A range of landscapes in which avatars sit and talk. Campfires, streams, rooms, cliff-faces.

Likewise here, I found I had little interest in chatting with random guys about the VR tech itself.

If anyone else I know ends up with a system that’ll run VTime then my username is Pre. Perhaps it’ll feel like it has more value if the people are folks I know.

Upcoming VR

This year will see the full Oculus kit release, and it’ll require a big hefty computer running Windows, with maybe Mac or Linux support later. Maybe. No promises.

I wanted to desire it, but that Windows restriction is just annoying. And if you wanted to get it before Christmas, you should already have put a deposit and be on the waiting list.

It’ll also see Playstation VR which will, on the other hand, run on the latest Playstation.

I could imagine myself buying a new Playstation with a VR headset attachment.

It’ll also see the HTC Vive, to run on Valve’s Steam-Machines.

I could possibly be quite excited to support a comparatively open base kit like Valve’s.

There’ll be thousands of different types of Google Cardboard style head-mounted cases for putting the phone in.

None of these will be really mature until towards the end of the year, and I’m very glad to have my Gear VR in the meantime.

Especially if it ends up being the only Oculus experience I get because the Oculus Rift is too high-end and too Windows.

If you’ve already got an S6, or an S5, or a Note 4, or intend to replace your phone soon then you gotta consider having the best consumer VR experience for the next few months as a Pro in Samsung’s favour.

Surprising there’s no sign of an apple iVR to be honest.

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