The Gear VR is a mobile headset created by Oculus and Samsung and is playing a huge role in advancing virtual reality. It is the first commercial headset to combine a wireless, phone-based design with real power and interactivity. It has now shipped over 5 million orders and is the most widely owned headset outside Google Cardboard. It has succeeded in spite of some frustrating design problems, particularly the lack of a good control system. On Tuesday this has been fixed with a new handheld controller, which will be bundled with the Gear VR sales starting today.
It’s a big step forward, but this only raises one big question: how long will Samsung and Oculus keep retrofitting the Gear VR instead of redesigning it? The new Gear VR controller will be released on April 21 and won’t replace the headset’s built-in controls. In fact, the Gear VR itself isn’t changing at all. Instead, it copies them onto a small black remote shaped like a detached joystick. The Gear VR trackpad becomes a clickable pad at the round upper end, and the Back and Home buttons are side by side just below it, while the volume clicker is turned into a flat strip of plastic right in the middle. On the underside, there’s a new trigger.
Gear VR controller also has limited motion sensing capabilities. While it’s not fully tracked, you can use it to make simple gestures or point at things in VR. All this brings the Gear VR’s total price from $99 to $129. If you already own the headset, you only need to add $39 for the controller. The controller doesn’t transform how you can use the Gear VR in the way motion controls transformed the Oculus Rift, but it makes the headset far more convenient to use. The Gear VR’s built-in controls force you to keep your hand raised to your head for long periods of time, which can become tiring in the long run. It’s also difficult to find the non-textured trackpad on the side.
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The controller offers something you can easily hold at all times because it adds tactile feedback by making the trackpad clickable. But if you’re left-handed you aren’t stuck using the controls with your off hand. Beyond ergonomics, having a separate pointer lets you interact with objects while looking somewhere else, instead of having to click while staring right at an interface element. Like the headset, the controller is artless and sort of ugly. It’s designed with the same sort of design indifference as Samsung’s old gamepad, made of dull black plastic.
The trigger feels loose and mushy, and although you can click individual corners of the trackpad, it all feels like pressing different sides of the same button. Oculus has announced that over 70 titles will be optimized for the Gear VR controller. In most of them, like the Hearthstone-like game Dragon Front, the controller is just a more convenient way of doing the same things you did before. But it makes shooting games feel very different, since you can use your hand as a simple gun instead of attacking things by staring at them.