Oculus Co-Founder Nate Mitchell Answers Our Questions About Samsung's Gear VR Headset

Oculus' John Carmack, swept away in VR land

For many who have been following the development of the intriguing Oculus Rift, yesterday's announcement at an event in NYC that Samsung was rolling out an Oculus-powered VR headset seemed to come out of left field. Yet there it was, this thing called the "Gear VR Innovation Edition," running Oculus VR's technology, strapped to John Carmack's face, and bearing a Samsung product name.

The device is designed specifically to work with the Galaxy Note 4, just as several of Samsung's other Gear accessories have been developed in tandem with Samsung smartphones. You simply pop the Note 4 into the Gear VR headset, and you're ready to explore; there are no wires, so the experience is contained within the headset, which is a welcome surprise.

The Gear VR runs off of the Note 4's CPU/GPU, so the VR experience is powered by (what we assume is the) handset's Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 chip, and users will be up close and personal with the Note 4's 5.7-inch 1440p AMOLED display. The Gear VR also runs off of the Note 4's battery, which raises the question of how much time you can spend enjoying virtual reality before the power dries up, not to mention how hot that thing will get. (For what it's worth, Oculus has acknowledged that both of those issues are ones it's working to address.)

Samsung has provided some specifications on the Gear VR itself:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Optical Lens96˚ Field of View
SensorAccelerator, Gyrometer, Magnetic, Proximity
Motion to Photon Latency< 20 ms
Focal AdjustmentCovers Nearsighted / Farsighted Eyes
Interpupillary Distance Coverage55 ~ 71 mm
Physical User InterfaceTouch Pad, Back Button, Volume Key
ConnectionmicroUSB 1.1 connection to the Galaxy Note 4
Dimension (Headset)198(W) x 116(L) x 90(H) mm
ContentsmicroSD Card (16 GB) in-box: A collection of 360-degree videos and 3D movie trailers from major studios will be pre-loaded, available through the Oculus Store

Oculus and Samsung both provided some further interesting bits in their respective posts announcing Gear VR, so we know that the Gear VR Innovator Edition is essentially a beta product geared at this point towards devs and "enthusiasts." It uses the Oculus Mobile SDK as well as technology such as Oculus Tracker and Oculus' firmware, but because of the mobile setup it lacks 6DOF positional tracking.

Interested parties can start playing with the Oculus Mobile SDK (available from the Oculus Development Center) starting in October. Shortly thereafter, we'll surely see some intriguing experiences coming alive, but at launch there are a few products that users can enjoy. These include Oculus Home, which is an interface for users to connect to the Oculus Store and launch content; Oculus Cinema, which is designed to be an IMAX-like movie-watching experience (on your face); and Oculus 360 Video and 360 Photos, which appears to simply be a way to play "panoramic content."

The above is all very interesting, but even with the information Oculus and Samsung provided, we had loads of questions. Fortunately, Oculus Co-Founder and VP of Product Nate Mitchell sat down with us to provide some answers: 

Oculus' Nate Mitchell

Tom's Hardware: How is the Gear VR fundamentally different from the Oculus Rift? Or is it?

Nate Mitchell: "Fundamentally" is the key word. At the end of the day, Oculus has always been about delivering great consumer VR and making sure that it not only comes to life but changes the world. In that regard I don't think it's very different from the Oculus Rift. That said, when you put [Gear VR] on and try it, it's definitely a different experience.

What we've come to see is that there are two categories of VR on the horizon: There's mobile, and there's PC. On PC, you have this incredibly high-fidelity, immersive experience that delivers "presence," which we've said for a long time is the magic of VR. Mobile is sort of an exploration in how much VR you can deliver on low-end hardware. John Carmack [Oculus CTO] and the mobile team have proved that you can have a very compelling experience on mobile with a very, very low barrier to entry.

I think you have to try DK2 and then put on the mobile headset to see how they fundamentally differ. For example, mobile does not have positional tracking. Positional tracking makes for a more comfortable, more immersive experience, and it opens up new gameplay mechanics, and that's not possible right now on mobile.

Having access to Android opens up a lot of opportunities, and then collaborating with Samsung allowed us to go much, much deeper and optimize in a way that's not even possible, really, looking at something like Windows or OS X.

In the long term, my expectation -- and I could be wrong -- is that [mobile and PC] will slowly collide as mobile gets better and as we start to apply some things on the PC side. But we have a long way to go before we get there. Today, they're different sorts of VR experiences.

TH: And why is that?

NM: Well with Android, you have access to the whole stack. Samsung even has their own version of Android, so we can go in at the lowest levels and add extensions and optimize the GPU and drivers -- really optimize for VR. It's not impossible to do that on Windows, and in fact we've worked with Microsoft and their DirectX team on doing things like that, along with GPU manufacturers, but you don't just have an open door to all of it.

So when you're working with a hardware manufacturer who's also putting the whole thing together at the end (all the way through the display), it really does allow you to do a lot more.

TH: Will we see more Oculus partnerships like this one with Samsung in the future?

NM: We've often said in the past that we're interested in licensing our technology to other people when it made sense for virtual reality. How do we push VR forward, faster? And how do we get VR to the widest audience possible? How do we make VR more accessible? When you look at the partnership with Samsung, the answer to all those questions is "yes" [this partnership will accomplish those things]. So it really depends on the partner and the opportunity.

TH: Is Samsung actually manufacturing the Gear VR?

NM: Yes, Samsung is doing the actual manufacturing.

TH: That's interesting, because you're making the Rift yourselves, right?

NM: Yeah, this is a different path for us. To my knowledge, we've never licensed our technology to anyone -- at least publicly announced -- before. But this made sense; Samsung really is the expert mobile phone manufacturer, and in working with a best-selling phone line like the Note, we can really bring VR to a massively wider audience than we will reach in a long time -- maybe years -- with the Oculus Rift.

TH: How long has the Gear VR project with Samsung been in the works? Does this predate the Facebook acquisition (of Oculus)?

NM: Yes; it's been over 18 months since we started chatting seriously with Samsung about the project, and when John Carmack came on board in August of 2013, he really picked up the reins and ran with it in a big way. There's a lot of Carmack magic in Gear VR!

TH: Why did Oculus choose the Galaxy Note 4? Could other high-end handsets work just as well with the Gear VR?

NM: There are a couple of things about the Note 4 [that made it ideal]; one is that it has a high-end CPU/GPU. The second is that it has an awesome screen resolution. It's 1440p, which is super important when [VR] is all about tricking your visual, perceptual senses. The third would be that the Note 4's screen size is very, very similar to the original Oculus Rift prototype and dev kit; it gives you a great field of view that wouldn't be possible with, for example, an iPhone 4.

TH: Does the Gear VR indicate anything regarding the future of the Oculus Rift? Will it become a mega-accessory (that is, something you can only use with a specific smartphone), or will the Rift remain its own beast?

NM: The Rift is, in some ways, a mega-accessory in that you have to plug it into an external CPU/GPU. And Gear VR is sort of the same way -- you have this headset, and you plug in your phone to power the device.

That's where we are in VR today; I think in the long term, we all believe that VR will be all about an all-in-one device. What you really want is almost a pair of sunglasses with an embedded CPU/GPU that you can toss in your pocket and take anywhere.

And that's how you get to ubiquity; that's how VR can have a [way] to replace even cell phones. We're a long way from that, but the Oculus Rift and the Gear VR as they've been described to everyone, are still in some ways accessories.

My hope is that [using the Note 4 and using the Gear VR] is a separate experience where, when you buy the Gear VR, you feel like you're getting almost an entirely new product [separate from the Note 4]. If you bought a cell phone with zero intention of getting this VR headset, all of a sudden you're going to be able to buy this portable, super-accessible, very high quality VR headset that is enabled by the fact that you have a Note 4.

If we don't deliver a super high-quality experience with new content and things like that, then I can see it being the same sort of situation [as some wearables] where you have it, and you're like, "Well, I don't really have a reason to use this thing, it feels more gimmicky."

But the Gear VR is powered by Oculus, and that means a lot. It's bringing the Oculus platform and ecosystem to Gear VR [which means that Oculus developers can work with it]. We have an incredible developer community that's done so much; they've built such incredible experiences, and they're going to be able to bring a lot of those to Gear VR.

Follow Seth Colaner@SethColaner. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

  • jrharbort
    Well, I guess now we know how the Oculus DK2 got the Note 3 display.
  • skit75
    I will be playing with the DK1 this weekend, for the first time. I am farsided and wear glasses so I am really interested in how the vomit goggles will treat me.
  • CyranD
    Do anyone know if the Note Edge will be compatible with the Gear VR or only the Note 4?
  • scolaner
    Just the Note 4--
  • everlast66
    It seem that Palmer Luckey/Oculus VR moto is "Everything for sale, anytime, at a good price."

    Facebook, Samsung, enyone else ...
  • hitman40
    In 2 years, there will be hundreds of brands of VR headsets. And it isn't even mainstream yet...why can't just people put all their efforts into at least pushing 1 out the door into everyone's hands.
  • The_Trutherizer
    Well... This will be great for when you are on a flight. Actually... Exceedingly excellent.
  • surphninja
    What is divisional tracking?

    Given that there's a built in camera, it seems like mobile devices are poised to thrive in augmented reality. I hope this device makes some progress in that direction. It would definitely help differentiate between the two devices and offer a very unique experience.
  • Ziomarco
    This sounds great for the casual user, but to get a true VR experience you need a separate screen for each eye. This gives you the feeling of depth and imersion that one screen cannot. Good step though. Anyone remember the Forte VFX1?