Launching on Gear VR
A developer’s experience with Gear VR, the recently announced mobile VR headset from Oculus and Samsung.
Moments ago, Samsung announced Gear VR, a mobile VR headset built in collaboration with Oculus, which uses a Galaxy Note 4 for its screen and processor. This means that I can finally make an announcement:
Darknet will be released as a launch title for Gear VR!
Whew! I had been holding that back for a long time. I’ll talk more about my specific plans for Darknet later, but for now, I’ll focus on my experience with the Gear VR hardware. (I won’t claim to be an impartial third party; I’ve been developing on Oculus platforms since the VR Jam last summer, and I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter from the start. Still, I try to stay realistic, and since I’ve been playing around with a Gear VR dev kit for a while, I figured that others might appreciate a developer’s perspective.)
The bottom line: it’s good. Resolution is high, latency is low, and it’s a remarkably smooth experience overall. Efficiency and performance will be a challenge, but the platform is solid, and it’s definitely possible to build truly fantastic VR games on it. More details:
The Note 4 has a resolution of 2560x1440, a bump up from the 1080p resolution of the Oculus Rift DK2. It’s a big improvement, although it’s not as noticeable a difference as the jump from the DK1 to the DK2. You can still see pixels if you try, and more distant objects still seem a little blurry. Still, it’s the best resolution I’ve ever experienced in VR, and it’s extremely useful for games that contain a lot of text or graphical detail.
Performance & Battery
The Note 4 is incredibly powerful for something that fits in your pocket, but performance is still a concern. It’s a mobile device, after all, and most games built for PCs will require a lot of optimization before they’ll run well. Developers will also need to keep temperature and battery life in mind; VR consumes a lot of power, and anything that makes the game run faster will help save battery. No optimization is ever wasted.
The Gear VR screen uses an OLED panel with a low-persistence mode, which essentially removes the motion blur that is associated with LCD panels. It’s just as effective as the screen on the DK2, which has the same capability. Before I saw the difference, low persistence didn’t sound like a big deal to me. Now that I’ve experienced it, I find it painful to go back to an LCD screen. I’m glad that I won’t have to.
Through some miracle (read: John Carmack), Oculus and Samsung have created a VR experience that feels even smoother than the DK2. Latency is incredibly low. I don’t have the greatest grasp of the technology (so hopefully Oculus will start bragging in detail soon), but my understanding is that Gear VR’s advantage comes from a thing called “asynchronous time warp”. This is a process by which the display is updated at 60 frames per second while adjusting the graphics based on head rotation, regardless of the performance of the actual game. In-game animations will still appear to run at the game’s rendering rate, so performance is still a priority, but there’s almost no latency when simply looking around, and a dropped frame won’t cause a nauseating lurch. It’s even possible to target 30fps for some games, letting the time warp keep the experience smooth while saving a ton of battery life. This feature makes a big, big difference.
Gear VR allows the user to turn on the Note 4’s camera, bringing up a small view of the outside world within the headset. This is a convenient feature, and it does a lot to reduce the feeling of isolation that sometimes comes with VR. (In my nerd fantasy, I like to imagine sitting in an airplane, watching a movie on my own personal IMAX screen, and turning on the passthrough camera to pick up a drink from the flight attendant. It feels very sci-fi.)
One of the Oculus Rift’s big improvements in the DK2 was the addition of a stationary external camera for positional tracking (i.e. non-rotational head movement). With no external camera, Gear VR can’t do positional tracking. It’s the one feature that I really miss, but it’s ultimately no worse than the DK1 in that respect. There’s a head-and-neck model to compensate, and that’s good enough for now.
The shape and fit of the dev kits has changed over time, and by the latest version, it was comfortable to wear for long stretches of time. I imagine that the final hardware is nicer still. More importantly, there aren’t any wires to wrestle with; I can spin around in my swivel chair as much as I want and never get tangled up. After working with a DK2 in a cramped office, this feels like an enormous luxury.
Ultimately, I’ve been very happy with the Gear VR hardware, despite the fact that I’ve only seen the early dev versions. It’s not going to be as great as the eventual PC-based Oculus Rift CV1, naturally, but it’s pretty amazing all the same. You’d think that using a mobile device for VR would involve greater sacrifices than this. Instead, Samsung and Oculus have made a strong entry into consumer VR. Now, it’s up to the software devs to complete the picture.