Watching Netflix in the Gear VR is great, but it’s not social

26 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A close-up look at Samsung’s new $99 Gear VR.

Social experiences are at the core of this year’s Oculus Connect. 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.

If there’s one announcement out of Oculus Connect that’s got me excited, it’s that Netflix has finally arrived on virtual reality, courtesy of Samsung’s $99 Gear VR headset. At $200, its last-generation headset, the Gear VR Innovator Edition, already undercut Oculus, Sony, and HTC, which are all due to release their more-expensive VR viewers—all targeted at hard-core gamers—in 2016. While there are plenty of interesting video apps out for both the Oculus Rift and Gear VR, so far they’ve all required importing my own video files or purchasing films. 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. It opens the platform up to anyone who owns one of Samsung’s four new flagship phones: the Galaxy Note 5, the Galaxy S6, the Galaxy S6 Edge, and the Galaxy 6S Edge+.

Of course, Google also has Cardboard—a headset made of cheap components, including its namesake material—that’s supposed to introduce the technology to the masses. 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. So it’s a little surprising that the new model’s pre-production mockup looks almost identical to the old Gear VRs scattered all around it at Oculus Connect. 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.

Samsung teamed up with Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, to overcome some of these issues, integrating an accelerometer, gyroscope, and proximity sensors. 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).

And because it’s geared toward viewing 360-degree videos—and less on processor-intensive games—it’s able to render the experiences relatively smoothly. “The reason we’re focusing so much effort and energy—and the reason we’re doing mobile and video—is because everybody has a mobile phone and everyone watches video,” Matt Apfel, vice president of Samsung Media Solutions Center, tells Quartz. 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. The current trackpad is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the headset, and the only way to find it is to feel for the edges or swipe around until something happens. 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.

The latest version still doesn’t work across multiple platforms, but it will be compatible with four Samsung smartphones—double the previous model. 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. Still, some, like Andreessen Horowitz’s Chris Dixon, believe there’s a lot to be desired. “I believe the high end is what you need,” he tells Quartz. Juniper Research forecasts 30 million shipments and $4 billion in revenue from headset sales by 2020. “I think these low-barrier, entry technologies are very important,” says Adam Levin, who helped found the Virtual Reality Foundation. “Certainly there is a divide between what you can do with a computer-based experience and cell phone-based experience, but the availability of cell phones as a way into virtual reality is very important.” 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. But with major streaming services like Netflix and Twitch on board, plus Minecraft support down the line, Samsung and Oculus are betting that the biggest selling point of the new Gear VR won’t be new hardware — it’ll be having lots of reasons to use it.

Samsung’s sixth incarnation of it’s flagship Galaxy S line of smartphones changes the formula up significantly with a premium, all metal and glass design, as well as the latest in hardware. 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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