Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 smartphones aren’t just phones. They’re also the cornerstones of the excellent Gear VR platform. And while that VR ecosystem depends on Samsung hardware for the brains and screens, it’s the Oculus app that delivers the face-computing magic.
With new Galaxy phones coming out, Oculus figured the time was right to update its own piece of the VR experience. When the new S8 devices ship on April 21, a new version of the Gear VR headset will ship too. It’s the first model with a handheld controller, powered by a pair of AAA batteries and equipped with motion sensors, a touchpad, and a trigger button. The whole package, headset and controller, will cost $130.
That trigger alone will boost the Gear VR experience immensely, adding gunplay, laser pointers, and logical input for games and other experiences. There are already 700 apps available for Gear VR, and Oculus says the new headset will launch with two dozen controller-optimized titles with another 50 or so in development.
It’s not all about cooler games, though. Oculus rebuilt its “Oculus Home” environment for the latest version of the app, using native code instead of the Unity game engine to speed things up. The company claims it launches three times faster than the previous version, and it drains 30 percent less battery in the process.
The bigger deal for the experience in general is that the new Oculus app generally makes navigating everything much easier. That goes beyond the handheld controller, which makes the interface far more intuitive. Finding stuff will be less of a chore, as there’s an “Oculus Explore” to curate content you may not know about.
Doors of Perception
Rather than having to use Samsung’s experimental VR browser, there’s now a built-in Oculus web browser accessible from the homescreen. It supports 360 video, so you can just visit YouTube and dive in. Oculus says it will launch voice navigation features in the coming months, so you’ll be able to launch apps and find games just by asking.
Your avatar now works across Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, providing a consistent virtual identity for all your headset shenanigans.
The most magical addition is that, somehow, Oculus has dramatically reduced the screen-door effect you get from looking at magnified pixels an inch in front of your eyes. Using processing tricks and a wraparound effect in the new browser, the company claims to have eliminated much of the pixel stretching and distortion with earlier versions. Even with a screen that’s the same resolution, the content looks sharper.
This revamped app also helps bridge the gap between Oculus on the Gear VR and the Oculus Rift. There’s now an Avatar Editor in the mobile app, letting you create your own VR identity by choosing facial features, hairstyles, clothes, and hats. Your avatar now works across Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, providing a consistent virtual identity for all your headset shenanigans. If you want to watch a movie on Hulu with your e-pals, you’ll be able to look around and see their avatars chilling with you.
As for that new handheld controller? You won’t have to buy an entirely new headset to get in on the improved experience. It’ll be sold as a standalone unit for $40 starting April 21, and it’ll work with the last version of the Gear VR.