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The First Major Virtual Reality Headset Is Here. Should Non-Geeks Buy It?

The Samsung Gear VR is in stores Friday for $99 -- but the actual price is a bit more.


Virtual reality is here for the masses, just in time for the holidays.

Samsung’s Gear VR headset started shipping Friday, the first major consumer virtual reality device to hit the public. It’s also a debut of sorts for Facebook-owned Oculus, which partnered with Samsung on the headset. Oculus developed much of the software and the app store that lets you find stuff to do in virtual reality, like play games or watch 360-degree videos. But most of the Gear VR’s cost is from Samsung’s hardware.

The device is a relatively painless $99 retail, but that doesn’t include a compatible Samsung phone (mandatory) and noise canceling headphones (optional, but a really good idea — more on that below). Samsung has been selling preorders of the device since last week, but isn’t sharing how many devices it has actually sold. The compatible phones are the Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 edge, S6 edge+ and Galaxy Note5, which all retail for well over $600 without an accompanying mobile plan.

I’ve been testing the Gear VR and a Note5 for the past week. After trying a myriad of apps — everything from shooter games like Bandit Six to simple Netflix — I feel comfortable saying two things:

  1. Virtual reality is absolutely fascinating and full of potential.
  2. I don’t recommend buying a Samsung Gear VR headset. Yet.

The quick take: The Gear VR headset takes the concept of burying your head in your phone to an entirely new level. That’s because the world around you isn’t just fading into the periphery like it does when you look at your phone screen; it gets wiped away completely. The device is good enough that it can truly feel like you’re in another place at the expense of “leaving” the real world behind.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently referred to it as “teleporting.” That’s a little cheesy, but it’s also not too far off.

Leaving the world behind can be great if you’re, say, sitting at home by yourself. But one of the issues with the headset is that as I used it, I continually wanted to share the experience with others. I got the feeling that virtual reality in general will rely, at least in part, on knowing other people who have a VR headset. Playing a video game or watching a movie alone got old pretty quickly. Like smartphones before it, virtual reality will get better as more people get on board.

If you’re thinking about getting the Gear VR, here are a few things to keep in mind.

The Price … Of Everything Else

The Gear VR itself is $99, which is cheaper than I would have expected. (Then again, Google’s low-end virtual reality device is literally made of cardboard.) The issue is that you need to buy other devices to enjoy it, and those devices are not cheap. You need a compatible Samsung device, which will cost you several hundred bucks minimum, and noise-canceling headphones. You can use any old set of headphones, but if you really want to block out the “real” world — truly teleport, as Zuckerberg might say — the expensive noise-canceling ones work best. That’s another couple hundred bucks right there. The joy of virtual reality gets pricey quickly.

You Still Look Pretty Foolish

Virtual reality may work best from a comfortable chair in your living room, but that’s not the only reason you’ll want to stay indoors. This headset is not what I’d call fashionable. And while Google Glass certainly didn’t make you look cool, at least you could see when others were mocking you. With Gear VR, you won’t know you’re being mocked until it has already been shared on the Internet. (Trust me on this one.)

Oculus Is Launching Its Own More Powerful Headset Soon

Oculus and Samsung are partners, but soon they’ll have competing products. That’s because Oculus is launching its headset, the higher-quality Oculus Rift, in Q1 of 2016. Those eager to try out VR may want to wait for Oculus, but the Rift will be much pricier once you include the cost of the high-powered gaming PC needed to power it. Samsung is pitching Gear VR as the everyman’s VR headset, so if you aren’t a hardcore-VR adopter, Samsung’s headset may be your better bet.

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