Samsung announced a web browser for the Gear VR this week, formally marking its inauguration as a bonafide smart device. The app itself, currently in beta, is dubbed “Samsung Internet for Gear VR”, and it seems to be designed to allow users to watch video online without the need for a dedicated app. According to Samsung, the app "supports both 360-degree and 3D video streaming, as well as any HTML5 video from the web.” One can infer that this means the browser will be able to take advantage of YouTube’s 360-degree offerings. The app will support an on-screen keybaord as well as voice recognition for text input. The browser also supports “gaze” interactions, which trigger when a user looks at a tab to select it rather than pressing the button on the side of the device. Bookmarks can be imported from the browser on users’ phones.
From televisions to e-readers to watches, it seems that no technology is truly smart until it has an Internet browser in some capacity. This browser does have a legitimate claim of purpose however; not every video streaming website will immediately develop apps for use on the Gear, so it makes sense to have a browser that can access sites like YouTube, Vimeo, and WorldStarHipHop in the interim.
The Gear VR has been slowly gaining features over the past year, making it increasingly hard to ignore. We’re beginning to see more movie and game announcements as hype continues to grow for the Gear. I was able to briefly try a demo of the device at Engadget Live in Brooklyn last month, where I watched a short film from a startup called EEVO, and played a game from Cerevrum. The short film, though lacking in substance and narrative, impressed me just based on the “wow”-factor of being able to look around inside a movie. At the Cerevrum booth I played an alien invaders-themed puzzle game that was a bit difficult to learn, but fun once I got the hang of it. As important as the device will be to introducing mainstream consumers to virtual reality at a reasonable price, I feel as though it is merely a precursor to the main event. Of course, I’m talking about the Oculus Rift.
The Gear’s most compelling aspect is its low price and compatibility with Samsung phones, which are a near second to iPhones in terms of marketshare. However, sticking a phone in the enlarged viewfinder can only go so far in immersing the user. The low-res visuals bar the experience from feeling like virtual reality, and it ends up feeling more like a virtual space. Additionally, although Gear handles gyroscopic rotations well, it falters with other kinds of movements, which will be essential when the video game scene develops.
The value proposition for the Rift will rely on the improvements in the experience over the Gear. We as consumers should expect high-resolution graphics, and improved handling of movement in 3D space. The Gear VR is merely a hint of the potential offered by virtual reality as a next generation entertainment platform.