The Gear VR, a mobile headset created by Oculus and Samsung, has played a huge role in advancing virtual reality. It was the first commercial headset to combine a wireless, phone-based design with real power and interactivity, and at over 5 million shipped, it’s the most widely owned headset outside Google Cardboard. But it’s succeeded in spite of some frustrating design problems, particularly the lack of a good control system. This week, that’s being fixed with a new handheld controller, which will be bundled with the Gear VR from now on. It’s a big step forward, but the execution raises one big question: how long will Samsung and Oculus keep retrofitting the Gear VR instead of redesigning it?
The new Gear VR controller, which will be released on April 21st, won’t replace the headset’s built-in controls — in fact, the Gear VR itself isn’t changing at all. Instead, it copies them onto a small black remote shaped like a botched eclair. The Gear VR trackpad becomes a clickable pad at the round upper end, and the Back and Home buttons sit side by side just below it, while the volume clicker is turned into a flat strip of plastic right in the middle. On the underside, there’s a new trigger.
Like Google’s Daydream controller, the Gear VR controller also has limited motion sensing capabilities. While it’s not fully tracked, you can use it to point at things in VR or make simple gestures. All this brings the Gear VR’s total price from $99 to $129, and if you already own the headset, you can add one for $39.
The controller doesn’t transform how you can use the Gear VR in the way the way motion controls transformed the Oculus Rift. But it makes the headset far more convenient to use. The Gear VR’s built-in controls force you to keep your hand raised to your head for long periods of time, and it’s difficult to find the textureless trackpad on the side. The controller offers something you can easily hold at all times, it adds tactile feedback by making the trackpad clickable, and if you’re left-handed like me, you aren’t stuck using the controls with your off hand. Beyond ergonomics, having a separate pointer lets you interact with objects while looking somewhere else, instead of having to click while staring right at an interface element.
Like the headset itself, the controller is artless and sort of ugly. It’s designed with the same chintzy indifference as Samsung’s old gamepad, made of dull black plastic. The trigger feels loose and mushy, and although you can click individual corners of the trackpad, it all feels like pressing different sides of the same button. Daydream’s remote feels cheap, too, but its design is intentionally light and toylike, without so many separate, imperfectly fitted pieces of plastic. (Also, after this price bump, Daydream is much cheaper than the Gear VR.)
But in terms of pure function, Samsung’s design works great. The contours let you grip it in a way you can’t do with Google Daydream’s remote, and the trigger — which Google considered but cut from Daydream — is an intuitive selection tool. And like Oculus Touch, the Gear VR uses disposable batteries instead of USB charging, which is helpful if you don’t want to worry about maintaining a steady recharging regimen. In my non-scientific tests, the motion controls also drifted out of place less frequently than with Daydream, although I still needed to reset the perspective every so often.
Oculus says over 70 titles will soon be optimized for the Gear VR controller, and it let me try out roughly a dozen titles that supported it. In most of them, like Facebook’s 360-degree video app or the Hearthstone-like game Dragon Front, the controller is just a more convenient way of doing the same things you did before. But it makes shooting games feel very different, since you can use your hand as a simple gun instead of attacking things by staring at them. Not everyone will prefer this, but it’s great to have the option.
Zombie rail shooter Drop Dead pushes the motion controls a step further by having you drop your “gun” downward to reload, which is clever and effective. On the other hand, I had a bad time with Oculus-published game Dead & Buried in an earlier hands-on — it asked me to simulate quick-drawing a gun, which felt clumsy and unnatural without full hand tracking. While I didn’t get to try it again for this review, it suggests where the limits of this controller might lie.
Overall, I also wish the Gear VR controller felt more like an integral part of the Gear VR, instead of one more piece added to an already overcomplicated platform. Having two very similar control systems could be convenient; you could leave the remote at home, for instance, and use the built-in options on the go. But it can also be confusing. Sometimes the device would go on standby when I put it down to watch something, and it would take me a second to figure out that I’d switched over to head controls when I was done. Also, not every app had the same basic interface when I tried them: social app vTime used trackpad clicks instead of the trigger, and Dragon Front was stuck in right-hand mode.
The Gear VR has so many little accessories at this point that I’m almost scared to take it out of its box. There’s the removable over-the-head strap, the slide-on adapter for different generations of phone, the protective front panel that I’ve lost on multiple Gear VRs — and now this controller, too. (You’ll also still need a console gamepad for some games.) There’s a small elastic strap that can hook the controller to the side of the headset so you don’t lose it, but it’s an inelegant solution compared to Daydream’s self-contained design.
As of this week, the Gear VR is the most full-featured and versatile mobile headset on the market, including Google’s Daydream View. But it’s striking how little it’s changed since the 2014 development kit, when it has such annoying and eminently fixable issues — like the lazy industrial design, the frustrating process of clipping in a phone, and now a duplicate control system.
It’s possible that Samsung doesn’t want to do a radical redesign while smartphones are going through some small but important design changes, like the switch from Micro USB to USB-C or the ongoing headphone jack battle. Or it could be waiting for Oculus to make more progress on inside-out tracking, which would be a massive leap for mobile VR. Releasing incremental, backwards-compatible updates would be a user-friendly way to improve the Gear VR while designing a cohesive second-generation revamp.
But this lag could also suggest the Gear VR is more a stepping stone than a serious product. It’s remarkable that Samsung and Oculus — two companies known for designing great-looking devices — have produced so many generations of the same ugly hardware, then extended that design to a new accessory as well. They’ve got a powerful core system, but haven’t polished it up. And both companies are working on dedicated headsets that don’t need a phone. If these come to fruition, the phone-based Gear VR could become more like an entry-level budget option, or be phased out altogether. If that happens, at least this controller will put it out to pasture gracefully.