Review of Gear VR: Wait for November

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

How Netflix works in virtual reality, and why it’s not HD.

It’s true, the Netflix VR app is ready for your compatible* Samsung phone and Gear VR headset (if you don’t see it, try uninstalling and reinstalling the Oculus app), and has a virtual living room for you to chill in.In the near future, when it’s time to relax, you’ll head to the living room, sit on the couch, pick up the remote, turn on the TV, fire up Netflix, and zone out to your favorite show. Besides the technical details of how the app creates a screen inside a virtual environment, and includes controls for use while browsing or viewing, Carmack also explained one more thing: the streaming video in VR is limited to standard definition (720×480).

According to Carmack, because the area you’re actually looking at is only composed of so many pixels, anything higher than 720p is the highest res video you should consider for VR right now. The swathe of virtual reality headsets that are due to be released in the coming year—like Oculus’s Rift, and HTC’s Vive—are essentially focused on the hardcore gaming market as they’ll be expensive devices that will require powerful PCs to run effectively. The good news: Whatever technical hurdles John Carmack and Co. needed to overcome to get Netflix streaming to function in virtual reality, well, they solved it. On the Gear VR, it had something more dramatic: streaming video apps that let people watch Twitch, Netflix, and more while sitting with their friends in virtual chairs. The Hollywood studios have very strict requirements about the path their content takes within the device, in order to prevent someone from making a high-quality copy directly from the stream.

If you have a Google Cardboard or one of Samsung’s first-generation headsets, watch this to get a feel for what VR Netflix will look like (and then come back here): Gizmodo’s Darren Orf tried out the actual Netflix app on a Gear headset, and said that “now reality seems hollow and pointless,” suggesting that soon we will all be content to live inside virtual living rooms instead of our own. To be fair, that ski-lodge-themed living room Netflix chose for its demo looks infinitely better than my actual living room, so I kind of get it, but there are a few hurdles that still need to be overcome before we’re all going to strap these things to our faces instead of watching on a laptop. Enter Netflix VR and you’re placed in what Carmack referred to as the “Netflix Living Room,” a weird cabin environment in the mountains with a decently-sized TV on the wall (pictured at top). Secondly, not as immersive as Oculus’s eventual headset will be (although the company worked with Samsung to build this), and you really are just looking into a smartphone strapped close to your face: The resolution is just not as great as an HD TV’s (or 4K TV’s) would be. But it’s hard to judge Oculus’ efforts against any of those, because the Gear VR’s social tools feel built for a specific kind of interaction I never have.

And currently, none of Netflix’s content itself is in 3D, so unless you really like that ski-lodge theme, it’s not a wholly different experience than watching Netflix regularly. But Netflix’s app hints at a future that we’ve been driving toward since the days of Tron and Microsoft Bob: an actual, virtual world to operate in.

But with Netflix, the possibilities end with the sort of TV you’d see in real life and say, “Damn, that’s a nice TV.” This is what Netflix thinks of as “The Core Netflix Experience.” Not a movie theater. I understand what this is supposed to evoke: the sense of being in a room with a few people you know well, sharing a football game or e-sports tournament. As for higher res, Netflix says it does not have “near term” plans to add HD streaming for VR because of “technical limitations there that could sacrifice a comfortable viewing experience.” John Carmack said he watched the entire season of Daredevil in VR for “testing” purposes. I’m not sure I would want to use it for that long, but mostly because of the weight of the first-gen Gear VR (the new unit unveiled yesterday is significantly lighter). You’ll get to keep your current user name (as long as it doesn’t contain invalid characters, in which case you’ll have to go through a few extra steps to make the transfer), and all your old comments will eventually (not immediately) migrate with you.

But each time, because VR is so new to these companies, we’ll end up with something like this Netflix app—perfectly competent for a first try, but facing the same issues other apps already figured out through years of iteration.

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