When my beloved Android pocket rocket the Nexus 5 suffered death by pavement this week, I had two choices. Upgrade to the slimline, pureblood Nexus 6, or climb back onto the gas-guzzling ponderous juggernaut that is the Galaxy series. I'd sworn off galaxy phones a few years earlier having finally got sick of the amount of proprietary bullshit bloatwear with which Samsung stuffs its products. This time round, however, the promise of (albeit limited) Oculus support was enough to tempt me back.
Sadly, things got off to a rocky start when the headset turned up the day after I ordered it, and the phone got lost by the Royal Mail. This left me in a situation where for three days I had a VR headset with no phone in it, and that made me THE SADDEST MAN IN THE WORLD. Because I didn't just not have VR, I had "No VR." A tangible quantity of it, sitting there on my polished oak dining table. Do you know what the difference between not having a dog and having "No dog" is? It describes a situation where you put through all the paperwork to adopt a dog, but they give the dog to someone else instead and you're left with ten bags of unopened dogfood, unchewed squeaky toys, an empty bed and an equally empty dog bowl with little bones around the side of it in your kitchen. You're just sitting there amongst all this stuff you've bought, saying "Why no, I don't have a dog. Why do you ask?" That was me, sitting there with an empty VR visor on, thinking about being happy in a fantasy computer land. SADDEST THING IN THE WORLD.
So the phone finally turns up while I'm asleep (I work nights) and I limp back to bed to lie on my side doing to Set Up The New Android Phone Dance. Then I need to go to the Oculus store and create an account. Then I ransack the store for everything that looks nice, and set it to download. Then I insert the phone into the headset and boot Oculus Home, which causes all the downloads to be kicked off the downloads list so that it can tell me to download them in-app. Sigh. Fine.
If I were a kid who got this for his birthday, this would be KILLING me.
Eventually, having jumped through enough hoops made of flaming dicks, I am plopped down into the Oculus Home room. Something's wrong, my brain says. Everything is sideways. I sit upright in surprise and the view comes with me. Seamlessly. Ohhhh. I was LYING on my side, so I saw everything on its side in The Matrix, too.
"Oh shit," says my brain. "We're in the future.
Introduction To VR
...is the name of an app that I'd say the intern came up with, but the intern would have probably at least made an effort.
Like most 3D experiences, the Gear VR is a persnickerty little brat and demands that straps, setting, height on your face and interpupillary distance all be calibrated just so. The lenses also get smeary if they're too hot or cold compared to the rest of the room, and the temptation to get grease and fibers on them by cleaning them manually is overwhelming.
While I wrestle with this, Introduction To VR shows me a blurry shot of the Earth, a blurry mountain and a blurry family eating blurry dinner in what I believe is called a blurt. I mean a yurt. All this is overdubbed by a saleswoman talking to me in a pitch that sounds like a ten year old who was really excited about 3D glasses wrote it.
Don't get me wrong, chaps. I wasn't expecting to plug this in, turn into Freakazoid and be instantly whisked off by Captain N to go hack the Gibson with Lady 3Jane, but it's not a strong start. REFERENCES!
Eventually I get the picture quality to settle down enough to take a seat in the Netflix virtual cinema, which promises the ability to sit in your armchair and watch TV as if you were watching it on a giant screen. Using impossible future tech to watch TV sitting on your own while pretending to sit on your own and watch TV in a larger room is a sort of absurdtist tragedy, and thus completely irresistible to me.
The virtual environment is good. VERY good. Looking down at the sofa and up at the windows, taking a few experimental spins, I find myself genuinely irritated when my hand brushes a piece of furniture back in my real house. I have a good sense of direction and an EXCELLENT sense of spacial perception, but this thing has tied it to a bed and ridden it hard all the way to Cockfosters.
Here's the rub. While modern phones operate at 1080 plus, the screen needs to be split into two for stereoscopic vision. If you build a screen which is in the digital world twenty feet high but which in real terms is only 500 pixels big, it's going to show. I force my eyes to focus until I can see a kind of cross-hatching effect on everything (which my research tells me means I am seeing the picture at the best clarity I can), and all I can think is that it'd look better if I were watching it on my laptop. Oh well.
This two minute tech demo drops me into a blurry forest, complete with a blurry Jurassic World jeep and a blurry Jurassic World branded drinks container. The star of the show, however, is the Apatosaurus in front of you who wakes up, lumbers over to have a sniff at you and WHOOOOOOOOA THAT'S A LITTLE CLOSE THERE JUNIOR.
The creature then lazily rears up, tears half a tree off with its mouth, has a good chew and goes back to sleep having reduced your emotional toolkit to that of a six year old. The demo fades to black, and you're left with the vague feeling that something wonderful and humbling just happened to you, and it had FREAKING DINOSAURS IN IT.
Temple Run VR
I do not like to endless run. I do not like it, Kee-Sun-Yun. Nonetheless, the idea of doing it in first person intrigued me. (Note: I have no idea who Kee-Sun-Yun is, or if it's even a name. I just made it up because it sounded Korean. Knowing my luck it'll turn out to be a Cambodian war criminal or something).
Temple Run VR plays identically to the mobile version. Using the touch pad on the side of the Gear VR headset you swipe left and right to move, and up or down to jump or slide. The big selling point is that you're doing this in first person rather than floating above your character's head.
You can look left and right to see the scenery zip past, and look over your shoulder to see how close behind you the monsters are. It's nerve-wracking. Gamers get bored quickly with novelty experiences like a VR roller coaster, but tie in the tension to a game mechanic that they're familiar with, and you've got the potential for some real terror. After ten minutes, by which time I've started to feel a combination of being high and being sea-sick, I have actually begun to sweat and the lenses fog up. Foiled.
I freaking love Smash Hit. If you've never played it, download it for your phone now. It's a game about throwing steel balls at pieces of glass. It's fun, it's very tight, and it has a great physics engine full of satisfying glass things to smash to bits.
The move to VR is a smart one. By the second level I've got the timing down, and by the third the obstacles are flying so thick and fast that I'm playing the game by instinct alone. This is how I imagined proper VR gaming to be. I feel like TRON. I also feel like my arm is going to fall off from tapping the touch pad to throw balls. The realisation dawns on me that I'm going to have to invest in a game pad.
By the way, I now feel sick. Really, properly sick, like my stomach is going to crawl up out of my mouth.
The Night Cafe
A bit of a random choice to finish off my first session of VR with, I tried The Night Cafe because of its excellent critic reviews. It lets you walk around inside a Vincent Van Gough painting. That's all it does. It doesn't sound like much, but this was the one that broke my brain.
Gear VR may lack the resolution to pump out completely convincing video experiences, but it can display 3D games with pin sharp clarity and everything in the Night Cafe looks and feels absolutely spot on. As I pootled around, staring at VVG's sunflowers and his famous pipe on a wicker chair, my brain's last shreds of desire to have a physical body burned away. I found myself reaching for a banister that wasn't there. Only a moment later I tried instinctively to crane my neck to look over a window frame. Less than a minute after that stupidity, I was made to feel stupid by trying to open an imaginary door with my real and stupid hand.
So, then. Final scores for Gear VR?
In conclusion, I expected to be sold a technically solid piece of kit housing a dumb novelty concept. Instead, I found Samsung Gear VR to be a disappointingly pikey piece of kit housing a surprisingly strong concept. Nobody is more surprised than me that I am actually enjoying gaming on it, all the more so because having spent the last five years disparaging endless runners I am now sitting here itching to go and play one. That's got to be SOME kind of recommendation.