A Brief History of (Virtual) Time
The timeline of the Samsung Gear VR, including a comparison of models and accessories.
One of the driving forces behind this product was none other than the legendary John Carmack. The following is an excerpt from an article by Engadget:
"Though Palmer Luckey and co. helped sway him with their own Rift headset, Carmack was eventually sold on the gig by Samsung's mobile VR concept: Gear VR. "That was really the prime thing that motivated me to decide: No, I'm gonna devote 100 percent of my attention and focus to Oculus."
Carmack was key in making a mobile phone suitable as both the display and the processing unit for a virtual reality headset:
"At the start, the first couple months were so frustrating. When I'm talking about how we need front buffer access. We need the ability to draw directly to the screen without this triple buffering. And the way the logjam got resolved was I figured out a way to incorrectly hack the first phone to give me what I wanted through this really obscene programming thing. And I showed it to some driver people later and they were like, 'Oh god, John. That's awful!' But it worked well enough to show that, okay, front buffer rendering -- this works. It cuts out two frames of latency. It's important.
And I had argued for it a long time. I wrote so many of these multi-page emails about how important it was. But once we had it so people could see and see that it really does work, then Samsung went and wrote a proper interface for it. They gave me a good extension that gets me access without the grotesque things I was doing. And really that was -- once the ice was broken, they knew that these are good suggestions; these suggestions lead to real improvements. Then they started giving me things I didn't think I'd be able to get."
"I started off on a Galaxy S4 with an Imagination Technologies graphics chipset in it. Then we got Galaxy S4s with Qualcomm Adreno sets in it. Then we got Note 3 with the Qualcomm. And then Note 3 with the Mali. And the Galaxy S5 -- the initial one. Then we got the S5 with the (2,560 x 1,440) display. And now we have the Note 4, so two different graphics chipsets. That's a huge number of things that we had to go through. And each one had its own little quirks and kinks, all leading up to the product that we're actually releasing now."
Ready for Retail
The first consumer release of the Gear VR - the SM-R322 - was released on November 20, 2015. According to the Wikipedia article on Gear VR:
"Pre-orders for the device went live on Amazon, Best Buy and Samsung on November 10, 2015, and the device was sold out on the day of release."
The SM-R322 no longer featured the solid plastic part of the head strap, but was 19% lighter than the S6 Innovator Edition and included an improved trackpad. This model had support for the Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, Note 5, S7 and S7 Edge. Samsung had also finally solved their overheating problem thanks to the new liquid cooling heat pipe technology inside the S7 and S7 Edge.
Alongside the release of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on August 19, 2016 the next model of Gear VR, the SM-R323, got a fashion update with the previous white and black design replaced with a deep blue colour. The design received some subtle changes to increase the field of view from 96 degrees to 101 degrees, and reduce glare. The trackpad also received a slight tweak replacing the curved design for a completely flat one. Personally I prefer the original curved design as it made it easier to make horizonal and vertical swipes, but it wouldn't take long to get used to the new design. Another changes include the switch to USB-C (with a swappable adapter included for older Micro USB-B models) the the onboard USB port now supported both data as well as power.
With the recall of the Note 7 on October 11, 2016, support for the Gear VR was removed via software due to safety concerns.
Got it in black?
The Gear VR received another style change with the SM-R324 - now in black. It was announced on March 29, 2017 and released alongside the Samsung Galaxy S8 on April 21, 2017. The only real change beyond the colour was a slight redesign to support the larger physical size of the S8. But that wasn't the big news of the reveal.
The Gear VR was now getting a dedicated Motion Controller. It would act as a laser pointer in software and included all of the physical buttons on the Gear VR itself - the touchpad, back and home buttons, volume controls and the addition of a trigger button. With the ability to better interact in virtual reality, this opened up a whole new world of software. Many titles moving forward would require this controller, while older titles were made easier to use since it was no longer needed to hold you arm up to make swipes or hit buttons. This controller would be bundled with the new SM-R324 as well as being made available as a separate accessory.
The final version of the Gear VR (SM-R325) was unveiled on September 15, 2017 alongside the Samsung Galaxy Note 8. Along with a slight physical change to support the larger size of the Note 8 phone, the volume buttons were also removed. As with the SM-R324 the SM-R325 was bundled with the Motion Controller.
The following year on August 9, 2018 the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 was released. Samsung made available a free adapter available to owners of the SM-R325 to make this model of Gear VR compatible with the Note 9. Although no longer available, this adapter also isn't required - the Note 9 fits just fine.
Side quests in 360
360, immersive video, or spherical video had been a big part of the Gear VR experience from the beginning. The original Note 4 based Innovator Edition included an application from Samsung called Milk VR. This app allowed access to a curated collection of 360 video experiences. Milk would later be renamed Samsung VR and would be included with the default installation of the Gear VR software. Facebook/Oculus themselves would also step into the ring by adding native support for 360 video in September 2015.
Producing 360 videos was a complicated affair, usually involving multiple Go-Pro action cameras inside a specialized housing, the first of which was designed Joergen Geerds. The world's first fully spherical rig was presented at the IVRPA conference in 2012. Joergen would go on to sell these commercially through his company 360Rig, later renamed Freedom360. Joergen and his award winning production house, Koncept VR, were instrumental in helping create the 360 video industry we know today.
Resolution is key for 360 video meaning high quality productions would remain, even to this day, the domain of professional film-makers with cameras costing tens of thousands of dollars. However Samsung changed the consumer landscape with the release of the Samsung Gear 360 (SM-C200) on April 29, 2016. Compatible with the Samsung Galaxy S6, this clever little duel lens camera brought 360 photo and video creation to the mass market, and the Gear VR was the perfect platform to show off these creations.
An updated model, SM-R310, was released in April 2017. This model was physically redesigned to make the camera thinner and with an integrated handle. Resolution was bumped up to 4k, live streaming and video stabilization was adding, as well as support for Apple's iOS.
The writing is on the wall. Or rather the shell.
Coming back to where we started this article, standalone VR was always a core part of the Oculus plan. On May 1, 2018 Facebook Technologies announced the Oculus Go - a fully standalone product that would essentially be a Gear VR without the requirement of a phone. What was most interesting about this announcement is that Facebook had partnered with Xiaomi and not Samsung to manufacturer these headsets. The Xiaomi logo is even on the headset, with a non-Oculus branded version sold in the Chinese market. The development of the Oculus Go was initially unplanned. The Oculus Quest was going to be their first standalone headset but halfway through development the team thought that a Gear VR equivalent would be a good addition.
"We thought it'll be like the Gear VR and it'll be easy," said Carmack on stage at Oculus Connect 5 in September 2018. "But it turned out to be really hard."
"We did not have a clear strategy around the Go launch," said Carmack, adding that the company didn't really know Go's target demographic. Eventually, though, the company figured out that Go's audience is essentially the same as Gear VR's, except with a better sales pitch.
"The Gear VR has shipped an incredible number of units, and it's by far the most successful VR headset," said Carmack. "But it hasn't been a very sticky product." Clearly displeased with some of the problems with Gear VR, Carmack talked about how people worried about draining their phone battery, as well as blurry optics where chromatic aberrations occurred.
In the end, the Go ended up selling really well. "The Go is retaining as much as the Rift," he said. While the Gear VR was a device that people used only occasionally, the Go and Rift are used on a much more regular basis. With the Go, you can just hop in and out of VR without having to worry about going without your phone. He says that a few features of the Go were even taken from Google's Daydream, such as recentering, cursor trails, and the ability to see your finger on the touch pad.
The following year, the Samsung Galaxy S10 and S10+ would be released (March 8,2019) and these would be the last Samsung phones to support the Gear VR.
Over the course of 3 years, Oculus and Samsung had released 5 different models of Gear VR, added the Motion Controller, 1000+ applications had been published on the Gear VR / Oculus Home store by developers across the globe and over 5 million headsets were in consumer hands (as of 2017).
5 million headsets plus an additional 2 million Oculus Go units sold meant, in theory, there was a market of 7 million users. But things weren't so rosy.
The end is nigh
On August 7, 2019 the Samsung Note 10 and Note 10+ were announced. Neither of these phones would support the Gear VR.
On May 21, 2019 Oculus would release the Oculus Quest - a standalone headset with complete 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) head tracking and two tracked controllers. The writing was on the wall for the 3DOF Gear VR and Oculus Go headsets.
“It was the classic leaky bucket that growth companies are advised not to pour effort into,” Carmack lamented. “We did pour a lot of money into the content there. There was significant amounts of money spent on content, and when I would look at a spreadsheet on where all of it went, and some of the apps that did almost nothing, it’s kind of sad.”
“There was a lot of things we could have done. The docking was fiddly. The mounting was fiddly. There were all sorts of software things that we could have done a lot better.”
What every Gear VR enthusiast knew was coming was made official by Facebook/Oculus with the complete end of support on April 4, 2020. The following is an excerpt from the official email send to users:
As our focus is on delivering great experiences that take advantage of the latest VR technology, we won’t be releasing any new features for Gear VR in the future, and we won’t be adding new Gear VR apps to the Oculus Store after September 15, 2020. That said, you’ll still be able to use your Gear VR, use the apps in your Library, and download Gear VR apps from the Oculus Store as usual.
Samsung added to this with the announcement on May 11, 2020 the end of support for it's XR and VR applications.
On June 30, 2020 support for the Samsung VR app ended for Gear VR, Oculus Go and Oculus Quest with the title removed from the Oculus Store. Then on September 30 user accounts were disabled.
The final nail came in 2021 when Samsung informed users of the S10, S10+ and S10e and S10 5G that if they updated to Android 12 (One UI 4.0) support for the Gear VR would be removed. Users could choose not to install this upgrade to maintain Gear VR support, but even with Android 11 there are many Gear VR applications that either no longer work at all, or don't work properly.
I'm not dead. I'm still happy!
It's now 2023. The Oculus Quest 1 and 2 have sold over 20 million headsets, and the Meta Quest 3 is just around the corner. There are hundreds of applications available for the Quest series on the Oculus store and even more available through the Sidequest platform.
But all is not lost. With the exception of the Note 4 (and the S10 if you upgraded to Android 12) every Gear VR compatible phone will still download the necessary software when docked with a Gear VR for the first time. The Oculus Home store is still online (for now), titles can still be purchased, and previous purchases can be downloaded - sometimes. As we have found, there are many titles listed on the store that will begin the download but will stall part way and never finish. You can refer to our Downloaded Failed List for titles we have confirmed this happens with.
Every Gear VR compatible phone makes use of an AMOLED screen giving deeper black and more vibrant colours than the LED display used in the Oculus Go or Oculus/Meta Quest 2. If you have a 360 camera, it's still perfect for showing off your photo and video creations, and still makes for a fantastic device for media consumption - be it at home or on the road. Not while driving though. That would be a really bad idea.
There are hundreds of applications available officially or otherwise, with classics like DarkNet still engaging experiences to this day.
And the best bit? The Gear VR is still the cheapest virtual reality experience around. As of the date of publishing a second hand Quest will set you back between AU$150 and $200, with the Oculus Go's often amazingly selling for a similar price (around AU$150). There is a good chance you or a family member have a Gear VR compatible phone sitting unused in a draw somewhere, and if not, you can score an S7 or S8 for less than AU$100. As for the headset itself, these can often be found for free, or as little as AU$10 without a controller, or AU$30 with one.
Over the next few months we will be testing our library of 545 applications to see what still works, and what's still worth checking out. We will also be reaching out for comments from app developers to learn more about what happened behind the scenes and what these developers are up to now.
The first Gear VR, SM-R320, or better known as the Gear VR Innovator Edition was released in December of 2014. Compatible with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (also announced at the IFA Berlin event) this was to give developers a jump start before the "official" consumer release. The SM-R320 is bulkier than later revisions and includes a padded support on the top head strap. The Gear VR wasn't just a set of goggles. It included a custom IMU (inertial measurement unit) in order to achieve the desired 20 millisecond "motion to photon" response Carmack believed was key in preventing vision lag, and as a result, simulator sickness. It also includes a touchpad, a "back" and "home" button as well as volume up and down buttons.
Between April 13 and May 11, 2015, Oculus sponsored the Oculus Mobile VR Jam with over US$1 million dollars in prizes and 1745 participants. Some of the greatest VR experiences of the Gear VR era were prototyped here including DRIFT, Bazaar, Atop the Wizards Tower, Soundscape VR, NeoS: The Universe and House of Languages. Many of the applications created during this Jam would go on to become retail releases.
With the release of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge on August 10, 2015, Samsung would release the second Innovator Edition with the SM-R321. This version only supported these two phones and included the addition of a USB port so the device could be powered/charged while inside the Gear VR, as well as a fan to help prevent lens fogging.
The original SM-R320 paired with the Galaxy Note 4 was notorious for overheating. As the back cover was removable on the Note 4 many ingenious makers created replacement back covers with built in fans to try and mitigate this issue. Unfortunately the S6 and S6 Edge didn't fair much better. These phones gained a reputation for overheating during normal usage, and inside the Gear VR they faired even worse. It would take another generation of Galaxy phones before this problem would be solved. Check out our article on the S6 vs S7 shoot-out for more information.
The Samsung Gear VR was first unveiled to the public on September 3, 2014 during the Samsung press conference at IFA Berlin, Germany.