Samsung's (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) virtual reality headset is finally available for purchase. Last month, the Gear VR made its long-awaited sales debut, offering owners of Samsung handsets an opportunity at a unique experience -- one not available to users of rival devices, including Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone.
The reviews for this radical new device have been surprisingly positive, relatively speaking. In the "pros" column, Ben Gilbert at Engadget noted "incredibly accessible; light, comfortable, attractive; extremely impressive visuals." In the "cons" column, Engadget noted "limited functionality; extremely limited software library; requires a Note 4, making it very expensive."
As Samsung pushes forward, Gear VR could give its handsets a unique selling point, and an advantage over Apple's iPhone.
The first major consumer VR solution
The Gear VR is notable in that, for most consumers, it could be their first opportunity to experience virtual reality technology. Oculus has been selling its PC-based headsets for some time, but they are aimed explicitly at developers, and not intended for mass-market consumption. Sony has unveiled its rival headset, Project Morpheus, but it remains in development and has no set release date.
Gear VR is the first solution that nearly anyone can experience -- today, if they're so inclined. There are some significant limitations: For starters, the Gear VR is an accessory that works with only one of Samsung's handsets -- its flagship Note 4 phablet. Moreover, at $200, it's expensive, and a paired bluetooth controller (another $50) is necessary to take full advantage of the technology.
The uptake of the Gear VR, then, will likely be limited, and Samsung seems to understand this, explicitly branding the current version of the Gear VR the "Innovator Edition." Currently, the Gear VR works with a limited amount of content -- a few movies and a handful of mobile games. More could be forthcoming, but if adoption remains limited, there will be little incentive for developers to create for the platform.
The product of a partnership
Still, if it catches on, it would give Samsung's handsets a feature its competitors couldn't match. A technology enthusiast selecting between Samsung's Note 4 and Apple's competing iPhone 6 Plus might be coaxed into choosing the Note 4 out of a desire to experiment with the Gear VR. Longer term, this could sway millions of consumers, if Samsung remains committed to the accessory and updates it over time.
But there's one major problem with the Gear VR: It's based on Oculus' software, a company wholly owned by Facebook. In a discussion with The Verge, Oculus mobile head Max Cohen admitted that his company would be open to working with other handset vendors down the line.
Samsung and Facebook have formed a strong partnership -- its displays are used in Oculus' PC headsets -- but it is one that could ultimately prove transitory.
The next frontier in mobile tech?
Still, it's worth watching. Samsung's pioneering efforts in large-screened phones gave it an advantage over Apple, one that it rode to billions of dollars in profits in recent years, but one that has been lost with the release of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Last week, Samsung warned investors that its profit and sales were poised to slip yet again, as the once-profitable niche it carved out for itself has been steadily eroded.
If it's going to return to mobile preeminence, Samsung may need to equip its handsets with a new must-have feature, one that its rivals aren't offering. Gear VR accomplishes that quite nicely.