No longer just a staple of science fiction, virtual reality is here—sort of. While the lion’s share of hotly anticipated VR devices like Oculus Rift aren’t going to be here until next year (or later), Samsung has released its first-generation “Gear” device as of last week.
The advertising around Gear has done a nice job of showing off exactly what the device can do, though it doesn’t explicitly state the limits of the device or any special apps developed for it. Early reviews lean toward the positive, and a handful of suppliers ran low of their stock on release day, illustrating either the device’s initial popularity or a planned shortage to build desire and mystique (likely the former).
Whatever the case, Gear VR already seems to be a modest success. It’s approachable, yet has some real limitations, making it an early contender in the VR world, but not one that shows off or harnesses the true potential of the technology. With the ever-recognizable Oculus as the developer of the early-stage device, it forces you to wonder—was Gear VR designed as a way to “warm up” audiences to the concept of virtual reality?
What Makes Gear So Approachable?
In theory, VR will be a disruptive technology, as it represents a new landscape of digital experience. Older generations might have difficulty adapting to the technology, and younger generations might be skeptical of it due to associations with previous “VR” devices that haven’t panned out or the bulky, somewhat tacky-looking application of the device.
Gear VR, however, is approachable for a wide audience, and here’s why:
- It’s small. At this stage of the game, if you want VR, you’ll have to strap it to your head. However, Gear VR is relatively small—barely bigger than your smartphone. It doesn’t demand much of you, and offers only a simple layer of interaction and a simple initial range of apps to use with it.
- It’s cheap. Retailing for only $99, Gear VR isn’t expensive. It’s perfect for those interested in VR, but skeptical of its successful execution.
- It’s non-committal. There’s not much commitment in buying a Gear VR the way there is with choosing an iPhone over an Android device or choosing a PS4 over an XBOX One. It’s the only real player in the game right now, and it won’t preclude you from buying a bigger, better device next year.
- It doesn’t promise anything. This point is key—Oculus and Samsung haven’t promised this to be the game-changer in the VR world. Gear VR is impressive, but it’s also simple—and they’re pitching it that way.
Despite these approachable advantages, there are some key limitations to the device that ensure it won’t stay the top consumer VR device for long:
- It’s launching with its own app store. This seems like a good thing, but co-launching with an app store means a limited selection of apps (and possible hiccups with the apps that are there). Apps will slowly roll out to it, building word-of-mouth and consumer appeal, so by the time a better VR device comes out, there will be a host of familiar and hotly desired VR apps.
- You need a recent Samsung device to use it. The device can only be used for Samsung phones that have come out in the past few years, including the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge Plus, or Note. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it severely restricts the number of users available to buy or use the device—possibly making them serve as a test audience.
The Bottom Line
With all things considered, Gear VR is not the be-all end-all VR device we’re all anticipating, nor does it have the entry power to command millions of users. Instead, it’s a small, cheap “sneak preview” of what VR can do, helping the early gadget consumers dive deep into the technology earlier than their counterparts, and helping reluctant audiences become more familiar with it before taking the plunge themselves. With VR sales and hype building modestly, an app store starting to burgeon, and users becoming more excited for “bigger and better” devices like the full-scale Oculus Rift, Gear VR is a perfect introduction to the world of VR—but that’s all it was designed as.