Gearing up for VR – Can Samsung open up VR to the masses?

Samsung giving away Gear VR headsets

When it was first announced back in September 2014, the Gear VR caused quite a stir. A Virtual Reality headset that marries the mobile wizardry of Korea’s greatest export with the VR intelligence of the very people who arguably kicked off the recent VR craze – Oculus VR – was exactly the kind of development that could help drive VR into the mainstream.

Samsung's Gear VR

Whilst ‘Innovator Editions’ of the Gear VR were made available to developers and enthusiasts to gain access to the technology as early as 2014, the real story began in November 2015, when the consumer edition became available on general release, and sold out almost immediately. Gear VR is compatible with multiple devices in the Galaxy line of mobile handsets: the Note 5, S6 and S6 Edge, as well as the upcoming S7 and S7 Edge set to release at the beginning of March 2016.

The great big Gear VR giveaway

Now Samsung has announced that they will give away a Gear VR headset with every pre-order of their upcoming phone models – the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. But what does this mean for VR?

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge | S7

Before Samsung made their announcement, retailers such as Carphone Warehouse in the UK were already reporting that pre-orders for the latest devices were up some 200 percent in the first 48 hours over the S6 and S6 Edge.

Even if you take reported pre order figures of the S6 and S6 Edge as a conservative estimate of how the S7 will initially perform, that could mean as many as 20 million Gear VR headsets out in the wild the day the S7 launches at the beginning of March 2016. That’s without even considering the headsets that have sold since launch in November 2015.

To sweeten the already impressive S7 pre order incentive, some retailers are also throwing in as much as $50 worth of VR content to get consumers started.

Market contenders

Certainly hitting the market so early is giving Samsung a huge advantage over the competition in the VR space. VR has ramifications in a number of entertainment industries, but just looking at the gaming space; Microsoft are working on their Hololens, which will likely work with the Xbox ONE and Windows 10 PCs to deliver a lot of content. If rumours are to be believed, there are just 19 million Xbox ONE units in the hands of consumers after more than two years on the market, which sets the possible target for their VR effort at a significant disadvantage.

Sony's PlayStation VR and Microsoft's Hololens

Sony are yet to announce the release date and pricing of their Virtual Reality effort, PlayStation VR (previously codenamed Project Morpheus). Announcements have stated that PlayStation VR will require a PS4 to work, of which there are more than 35 million units currently in the homes of consumers. Presumably only a fraction of that 35 million will initially get their hands on PlayStation VR, and certainly less than the 20 million users that Gear VR could have by the end of March.

Whilst the power of a standalone games console or PC undoubtedly eclipses the might of the S7 and S7 Edge, the arguable genius of Samsung’s move is to pair the VR experience with a device that every single consumer in the west is already familiar with – the Smartphone.

Folding up the competition

Perhaps the most direct competitor to Gear VR is Google’s budget effort – Google Cardboard. Promising to allow consumers to experience VR in a “simple, fun, and affordable way”, you simply have to download the cardboard templates to make your own Virtual Reality headset into which you can slot a wide array of devices – specifically those running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) or above and ideally the device should also support Near Field Communication (NFC).

Whilst the low barrier to entry for Google Cardboard – essentially an arts and crafts afternoon and a smartphone – seems like a huge draw, their entry into the market has critics polarized, from Wareable’s opinion on the importance of this move to the downright scathing indictment from Wired’s Will Smith (not that one).

A question of fidelity

For many consumers, getting hands on with relatively low-end Virtual Reality like the Gear VR will be their first foray into the latest iteration of VR. Any gaming veterans over a certain age will fondly remember the disaster that was Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and the nausea that accompanied even a fraction of play time.

Nintendo's Virtual Boy

Whilst the technology has moved in leaps and bounds in the 20 years since Nintendo’s failed efforts – and notably the Gear VR has much wider applications than just gaming – what we can take from this history lesson is that if the consumer experience of a technology as revolutionary as VR is a bad one, it can effectively set the entire market back.

The question of cost is also a major one. Only the gadget fanatics will likely purchase multiple iterations of VR from different manufacturers. Instead Samsung have positioned their competition in such a way that they will have to effectively show enough consumer benefits to warrant a more premium price point, then back that up with extremely high fidelity and compelling content.

The alternative view is that Samsung could be paving the way for consumers, showing what entry-level VR is capable of to more than 20 million consumers, just for more targeted devices to sweep in and reap the rewards.

- Thomas Wallis

Get in touch with the author of this article on twitter: @ClacTom

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