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VR headset mixes Oculus firmware and Android phablet

Sep 9, 2014 — by Eric Brown 1,381 views

Samsung and Oculus have joined forces on a 3DOF “Gear VR” virtual reality headset with 96° FOV that uses a 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4 as a computer and display.

Why reinvent the wheel? That’s the idea behind a growing number of telepresence robots, home automation devices, and other gizmos that leverage existing smartphones and tablets as the brains of the outfit. Using a similar strategy, Samsung and Oculus have teamed up on a mobile virtual reality headset called the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition. The headset offers optics and firmware from Oculus, and requires the newly announced, Android-based Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phablet for the computer, display, and audio. The Samsung Gear VR initial Innovator Edition will ship later this year as a beta product aimed at developers.

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition

The Gear VR, which shares part of its name with Samsung’s Gear smartwatches, is the result of a year-long collaboration between Samsung and Facebook-owned Oculus. The latter firm is developing the Oculus Rift, a device that many believe will be the first successful consumer virtual reality headset. The current, second-generation Oculus VR DK2 developer version of the Rift, which goes for $350, is already a bring-your-own-computer device, as it’s tethered as a peripheral to a PC.

Galaxy Note 4

The untethered Gear VR headset requires the Galaxy Note 4, which was announced last week at the IFA show in Berlin. The large smartphone runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 805, a quad-core 2.7GHz system-on-chip that uses a rough equivalent to the ARM Cortex-A15 architecture. The Note 4 ships with 3GB of DDR3 RAM, as well as 32GB or 64GB of storage.


The 176-gram Galaxy Note 4 is equipped with a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED screen with 2560 x 1440-pixel Quad HD resolution. That level of resolution may be overkill on a phone, but will likely be put to better use in the Gear VR. The Galaxy Note 4 is further equipped with a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 3.7-megapixel camera up front.

There are no prices as of yet for either the phablet or the Gear VR, but the Note 4 will probably be similar to the $700 off-contract price of the previous generation Galaxy Note 3. The Samsung Gear VR is not compatible with the Note 4’s bizarre sibling, the newly announced 5.6-inch Galaxy Note Edge. The Edge has a screen that curves around the side edge of the phone, providing an additional sliver of screen for information such as weather and time.

Two more views of the Gear VR

The Gear VR uses “variations” of the Oculus Tracker and firmware used on the Oculus Rift, offering, “extremely accurate, ultra low-latency 3DOF tracking,” says Oculus. The company claims to have achieved sub-20 millisecond motion-to-photons latency on the Gear VR, or “roughly equivalent to the most highly optimized experiences on DK2,” says the company.

Gear VR in use (left) and next to Galaxy Note 4
(click images to enlarge)

The 198 x 116 x 90mm device has an accelerometer and gyrometer for tracking head movement, letting you turn from side to side without any wires getting in the way. It also provides a 96-degree field of view, which is just slightly less than the DK2 version of the Rift, and has a 60Hz refresh rate. Other specs posted by Samsung include an interpupillary distance coverage of 55 to 71mm, focal adjustment for near- and farsighted users, and magnetic and proximity sensors.

The Gear VR’s latency may be competitive, but the graphics and positioning features are not as good as the DK2, according to a mostly positive hands-on report from Engadget. Unlike the 6DOF Rift DK2, the Gear VR offers no depth tracking, so stepping forward does not change the view, says Engadget. On the Rift, a camera peripheral performs depth tracking.

Oculus Rift, DK2 version

According to Engadget, you simply plug the Note 4 into a micro-USB dock on the Gear VR, and then focus the view with a dial. The story praises the device for its video passthrough feature, which lets you press a button to switch between virtual reality and the real thing. The audio experience is also quite good, says the story.

The Gear VR runs applications developed with the Oculus Mobile SDK, which will be released publicly this fall. There’s no interactive content, as of yet, but the device will ship with a 16GB microSD card loaded with 360-degree videos and 3D movie trailers. According to an Oculus blog announcement, initial software offerings will include Oculus Cinema, Oculus 360 Videos, and Oculus 360 Photos apps, as well as an Oculus Home app that will lead to an Oculus Store where you can download VR content. There was no word as to when VR games might become available.

According to Oculus, the company has spent over a year optimizing Android and the Snapdragon 805’s Adreno 420 GPU drivers for virtual reality in the following ways:

  • Allowing custom calibrated sensors to talk to a dedicated kernel driver
  • Enabling real-time scheduled multithreaded application processes at guaranteed clock rates
  • Context prioritized GPU rendering, enabling asynchronous time warp
  • Facilitating completely unbuffered display surfaces for minimal latency
  • Supporting low-persistence display mode for improved comfort, visual stability, and reduced motion blur / judder

Despite the fact that the Snapdragon 805 is one of the fastest, most capable mobile SoCs around, Oculus admits that the Gear VR lacks “the raw horsepower of a high end gaming PC.” Other challenges include adding 6DOF positional tracking, says the company. Oculus also stressed that the Gear VR project in no way affects its plans to continue to bring the PC-based Oculus Rift to a wider audience.

Further information

The beta-level Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition will ship this fall at an unstated price. More information may be found in the Samsung Gear VR announcement, as well as the Oculus Gear VR announcement.

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One response to “VR headset mixes Oculus firmware and Android phablet”

  1. tom says:

    the word phablet makes me want to phomit.

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