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Adventures in strapping a concert to your face: a Samsung Gear VR demo

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Gear VR 1

With the 2012 invention of the Oculus Rift, virtual reality became one of the most exciting fields in technology. It also became one of the most hilarious fields in technology, simply by virtue of having already been a big deal way back in 1991. Sure, the headsets are slightly smaller and there are fewer wires and the graphics are better, but users still look ridiculous, and ultimately, it’s like the entire tech industry is double dipping the tortilla chip of virtual reality into the salsa of our minds while chewing with its mouth open and swearing that things are going to be totally different this time, for real.

It’s still really cool, though.

On Wednesday morning during Samsung’s Unpacked 2014 event, the company famous for its Galaxy line of smartphones announced what it’s calling the Gear VR: a virtual-reality headset powered almost entirely by the Galaxy Note 4. All a user has to do is download some software and snap his or her phone behind the front plate of the headset, and boom: the phone is a virtual-reality device. This is a legitimately fantastic idea—it lowers the barrier of entry to enjoying VR content. If you have the headset and a Samsung phone, all that’s required is the download of whatever media you want to play. The tech was developed in partnership with Oculus, which is now owned by Facebook, so there’s some serious VR cachet behind it.

The event’s show floor was full of newly announced Samsung smartphones and other assorted peripherals displayed for guests to check out, but if you wanted to experience the Samsung Gear VR, you had to wait in line for a booth to open up. So I did.

“I just need you to sign this,” says a friendly Samsung staff member, offering me a clipboard while I wait in line for the hands-on demo.

“Is this so I don’t sue you if I throw up?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

Fair enough. I sign. Afterwards, I’m introduced to Sean the Samsung Guy, who leads me to a Plexiglas booth similar to the ones polite drummers use during concerts to keep their drumming to themselves. Sean the Samsung Guy helps me into a snug Gear VR headset, and then into some cozy over-the-ear headphones, sealing me into the world of virtual reality.

Nothing happens. There’s a concert on the display, but the image is frozen.

I wait, and since everyone kind of looks the same when they have a giant headset strapped to their face, Sean the Samsung Guy has no idea something is wrong. (Eyes, apparently, are important when conveying concern.) It takes me a minute to realize this, and so I flail my arms like a toddler to get his attention. He asks if I’m all done, and I tell him that no, I never got started. Sean the Samsung Guy takes my headset and messes around with it some before crowning me VIP of VR concert-land once more. Except it’s still not working.

I tell Sean the Samsung Guy about my predicament. It’s all fine; tech demos are weird and maybe I’m doing something wrong. I’m no expert—everything I know about VR comes from episodes of The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest, after all. We try another headset. No luck.

After a few uncomfortable minutes where I hold my hands up to prove I’m not touching anything to mess up my headset as nothing works (people observing me must have thought my demonstration was extremely immersive), Sean the Samsung Guy decides to give the first headset one last try. Which is a success! Except the sound doesn’t work, because the headphones are no longer synced.

And so, at this point, strapped to my face is a VR concert experience—real footage from an actual performance. The band appears to be an energetic group of conventionally attractive men, though I couldn’t tell you who they are, in large part because I can’t hear them. True to what’s advertised, I can turn my head and look around the concert space as if I’m Really There. Except when I look behind me. There isn’t anything behind me, but that’s probably more of an artistic choice than a technical limitation. There is, however, a young man to my right engaged in the unique kind of spastic bliss that can only be described as White Guy Dancing. That’s fun to see, albeit in silence.

After that, it’s over. I’m back in the real world. No White Guy Dancing occurring to my right, no hip, mute band rocking out silently in front of me.

A shame—the whole thing was kind of cool, and I might have been really into it if there had been sound.

In the distant future of “this fall”—when the Samsung Gear VR is scheduled to be available for purchase—the average person’s virtual-reality experience will likely be nothing like this. There will be actual content (movies and concert recordings and games) for users to dabble with, not bite-sized tech demos that are repeatedly shown on a busy show floor in conditions that invite them to break down. It’s very possible that the Gear VR will be a seamless and fun experience upon release, an accessible way to bring home a slice of the future. It’s also very possible that it will not. Consumer adoption of technology is a fickle thing—best doesn’t always win, and cutting-edge doesn’t always translate to popular appeal, as Betamax, Microsoft’s hyper-connected vision for the Xbox One, and 3D TVs have demonstrated. And until VR headsets are widely available, there’s no real way of telling whether or not they are The Next Big Thing companies like Samsung hope it is.

Either way, wearing that headset for more than an hour will probably be uncomfortable—even when it works.