Sunday, July 26, 2015

Oculus Cinema in Gear VR

I think this blog can attest to the fact I'm a movie buff. I like big images and big sound. For as long as I can remember, owning a bonafide movie theater has been on my short list of dreams. This weekend the dream came true...

Sort of.


The sense of presence in Samsung's virtual reality headset is amazing. I showed it off to five of my friends this weekend, all of whom typically roll their eyes at my gadget obsession, and they were all blown away. Watching someone realize they can look around a 3D environment is almost as fun as experiencing it first hand. I don't think I've ever said "wow" so many times in my life. The 360-degree videos which come pre-installed with the Gear VR are so real, you feel like you're there. Notice I used no modifiers, no weasel words: you feel like you're there. Period.

I won't talk about the games and the virtual vacations today because I haven't spent much time with that stuff. Oculus Cinema is what I really wanted. 

The app comes pre-loaded with a handful of short films and trailers. Two of the trailers are in 3D. Although I've always hated 3D movies, Oculus Cinema's 3D is much more impressive than anything I've seen in a theater. The screen isn't dark and you don't get that flat look in the faraway backgrounds which has been one of the more distracting aspects of 3D movies for me. Then again, that's only around five minutes of 3D footage that's been cherry picked for the app. Who knows what a full length picture will look like when it hasn't been tailored for this device specifically?

Still, I'm a lot more open to the idea of 3D movies now, just as long as I don't have to watch them in actual movie theaters anymore. I find Gear VR is more comfortable than the disposable glasses at the multiplex. Then again, I don't have to wear my prescription glasses underneath Gear VR like I do with the movie theater glasses. (If one of your eyes is dramatically worse than the other, or you're extremely far-sighted, it would be best to invest in contact lenses before getting Gear.)

there's some great use of colors and cinematography in this movie, perfect for Gear VR

The first full length movie I'd planned to watch in Oculus Cinema was Tremors, but I decided to save that until I find a way to plug the headset into my surround sound system (I'm led to believe that's possible). I decided on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 instead, which certainly isn't a movie I mind watching with headphones. Although it's not the equivalent of 1080p video, I was never disappointed in the quality of the image. The last time I saw this movie was on VHS, and Gear VR looks at least twice as good as that experience was. The apparent size of the screen and the colors were fantastic. Although jump-scares rarely get me, the first time Leatherface comes running out of the darkness with his chainsaw in hand scared the shit out of me. 

So, is the unit comfortable enough to watch for two hours straight? Well, I hate to say it, but I took two breaks. I'm not sure I needed two breaks, but I took them anyway. Not because of motion sickness or eye-strain (so far that hasn't been an issue for me), but because it just isn't comfortable wearing the headset for so long. 

The following video is a great primer on Oculus Cinema:


Now, some things suck about the Gear VR, too. The "screen-door" effect, though minor, is still an issue. Unless you're watching a really bright movie, you probably won't notice it unless you're actively looking for it, though, and I hear it's a lot better than it was in similar prototypes. (Although the screen resolution is better than consumer-level televisions, it's a lot closer to your face and magnified through lenses, no less. I suspect the effect will be absent in these devices in a year or two.) Today the lenses were fogging up, which is especially annoying. Oklahoma humidity, however, probably has a lot to do with that. Your mileage may vary.

Those are only my minor complaints. Samsung made the bone-headed decision to lock the experience down to a handful of approved apps. Google Cardboard is almost as impressive (though more likely to cause motion sickness) and you can get it for less than twenty bucks if you don't want to build your own. Not only does Cardboard allow just about anyone to create content for it, it even has an official YouTube app. The Gear VR doesn't allow streaming videos of any kind, which I'm more interested in than short demos and mobile games. I understand Samsung feels it can offer a better experience by controlling the content with an iron fist, but it's more of the usual corporate bullshit which only weakens the value of their product.

Thankfully, you can add your own movies to the device as long as you ripped them yourself or obtained them in a way corporations like Samsung wouldn't approve of. It's still no excuse for Samsung's oversights, but it's a start. Watching movies from Netflix, Google Play, or the Apple Store can't be done out of the box and the workarounds people have come up with are a serious pain in the ass for most people. Again, I want to stress it's an incredibly stupid move on Samsung's part. It's the only reason I can't recommend the product although it's something I think everyone in the world should try. The device has been out for more than seven months now and still doesn't have the everyday apps the public wants. That's more than unacceptable. That's a slap in the face.

Although I have Waterworld, Dr. Strangelove, and Tremors uploaded and ready to go in Gear VR, I'm pretty certain the next movie I watch will be on my regular ol' television. Yes, Gear VR may be the most impressive and futuristic gadget I've ever laid my hands on, but it's like an amusement park ride: there's only so many times you want to go on a roller coaster before you want to go ride around in the bumper cars. For something that's been out for nearly a year, there's just not enough official content in my opinion. 

My suggestion for movie buffs? Unless you already own a Galaxy Note 4, wait until a better, less restricted headset comes out. It'll be cheaper and a lot less frustrating.

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