We think the Gear VR is the best mobile virtual reality right now by a long shot. But just how far is it behind the leading PC-based VR headsets, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, on an experience level? We have a few thoughts.
In addition to having had a Gear VR in-house since the first Innovator Edition launched in late 2014, we've spent quality time at various events with multiple versions of the Rift and Vive. As pre-orders for both PC headsets are now dangling in the air, maybe you're wondering just how much better they are, or whether you'll be fine standing pat with the cheaper and simpler Gear.
The subtitle of our Gear VR review was "Almost an Oculus Rift" ... and, in retrospect, that may have been toying a bit with the relative meaning of "almost" (sorta-kinda almost may have been more like it). But the point was the Gear VR's best games come closer than most people would expect to Oculus Rift games. The Gear VR flagship game HeroBound: Spirit Champion and horror game Dreadhalls, for example, both feel very much like Rift games (and in fact, they are). Gear VR title Eve: Gunjack has simpler, more stationary gameplay compared to its Rift companion Eve: Valkyrie, but otherwise looks like the same game set in the same universe.
Yes, the Gear is mobile and no, it's not really in the same class as the Rift. But at its best the experience is, if not in the same ballpark, then at least tailgating in the parking lot, roasting some weenies, waiting for its chance to sneak into the cheap seats.
There are only three ways that we see today's Gear VR lagging behind the Rift and Vive: no positional (leaning/movement) tracking, no motion controllers and lower raw horsepower. The Rift and Vive, meanwhile, lag behind the Gear VR in two ways: they're wired (tethered to a high-ish end gaming PC) and much more expensive.
The horsepower factor comes into play with Rift games that milk their PC graphics cards for all they're worth. Titles like Chronos, Eve: Valkyrie and Edge of Nowhere (among others) are visually far beyond anything you can play on the Gear today. And once you get past the Gear's very best titles, the rest of its storefront has plenty of arcade-like fluff that plays exactly like what you'd expect from a rapidly-developed smartphone game. Those don't compare to the Rift in any respect.
Put another way, the Rift's best games are, on a visual and depth of gameplay level, far ahead of the Gear's best games. And the Gear's worst games may as well hang a neon sign on their door saying "Mobile! Indie! Arcade!" But there is an overlap area, where the Rift's more middle-of-the-pack content will line up pretty well with the Gear's better content.
Keep in mind, though, that horsepower is a moving target. Last January, Oculus Product VP Nate Mitchell told us that he expected the Gear VR to follow about two or three years behind the Rift – presumably meaning the 2017 or 2018 Gear VR would be as capable as the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype from that day, which was essentially today's consumer Rift with a different exterior.
Paul Bettner, creator of Rift launch title Lucky's Tale, agrees. Earlier this year he told us "It looks to me, from the way the technology is progressing, that easily in 18 months, 24 months, you would be able to have a Lucky's Tale experience on mobile. This stuff is just moving so fast." When pressed about whether he meant a watered-down mobile version or a nearly-direct port, he didn't rule out the latter. "Well, we'll see. Again it depends on what the technology makes available to us."
Bettner's conclusion? "It seems like most of the experiences you're getting in the Rift today, you will be able to get in mobile VR in the next two years."
For the Gear VR to fully catch up with the Rift, it would need not only more powerful smartphones on the inside, but also at least one positional sensor along with motion controllers equivalent to Oculus Touch (above). Apart from some Samsung prototypes which were shown at CES as little more than "who knows if these will ever get made?" teasers, we haven't yet seen any public movement in that direction. There's also the fact that portability is one of the Gear VR's biggest strengths, and adding an external sensor to that equation would limit this advantage. That's a tradeoff we'd take in a heartbeat (don't most people use the Gear VR at home anyway?), but it could be one reason why Samsung and Oculus haven't yet prioritized body tracking for the Gear.
What if you've used the Gear VR, but haven't gotten a chance to try the consumer Rift or Vive? How can you use that experience to get a sense of what the Rift is like? Well, imagine what you saw in the Gear VR, only add positional tracking (so when you lean in, stand up or walk around, the world responds as you'd expect it to), deeper gaming experiences and higher-fidelity environments. And that's assuming you were playing a higher-tier Gear VR game like Herobound, Dreadhalls, Land's End or Eve: Gunjack, and not one of the many lower-quality titles in the Oculus Store.
This isn't a zero-sum equation, as there will likely always be room for PC/console VR and mobile VR existing side-by-side. If mobile VR will indeed catch up with today's PC VR in a couple of years, then you can bet that, at that point, the Rift and Vive will be far ahead of where they are today. That will be an exciting time for virtual reality, when you can pop your smartphone into a headset and get an experience that's as dazzling as today's Oculus Rift (only wireless!) or connect your PC to an Oculus Rift 2 (or whatever it's called by then) and get something that's far ahead of that. On both counts, you can count us in.
Right now VR is finally set to transition from long-hyped buzzword into a consumer reality, but if consumers at large fall in love with VR in the next couple of years, then rapid evolution in both mobile and PC will be ready to accommodate them. The considerable but maybe not as big as you'd think gap between mobile VR and PC VR will always be there, but they're both going to move forward at an incredible clip. We can't wait.