We've just attended a demonstration of Samsung's VR Gear for one of our techie websites. Designed by Samsung in collaboration with Oculus VR , the wraparound headset provides for a full portable and lightweight immersive virtual reality experience that's far removed from what we've ever seen in the marketplace before.
Designed at this stage for the Samsung Note 4 (only), the phone literally straps to the back of the device and provides the VR screen. Connectivity from the phone to the headset is provided via a USB cable that connects both devices.
The generic demonstration provided a number of experiences; strapped to the underside of a helicopter flying through the alps, sitting in a virtual cinema watching a movie, and playing a few old-style arcade-style video games. Don't be fooled - the experience is true virtual reality.
The initial release is slated as a 'Innovator Edition', suggesting that the target market is aimed at developers that can build upon the product before it finds a broader audience. Samsung tell us that it'll be anywhere from December until February before the product is available in Australia (they're hoping for a pre-Christmas release) although it's likely our American brethren will see it on retail shelves much earlier.
While the rest of the group of Android geeks moved towards real world usage, I couldn't help focus my attention towards aviation applications both inside and outside the aircraft. While we'll no doubt tackle the issues of training applications in the future, what struck me initially was the ability to deploy the headsets almost immediately into aircraft as an option for in-flight entertainment.
IFE systems, regardless of who manufactures them, and by virtue of a costly certification process, generally represent the best technology that existed 6 or 7 years before their release. Because of the cost of installation, licencing, and maintenance, many airlines have opted for either BYO wireless systems or the tablet solution - neither is particularly inspiring. Whatever options airlines provide, it's always a small screen in a big world.
The Gear VR is a fully immersive experience. Instead of watching a movie on a small screen with the broad distraction of an overwhelming peripheral vision that diminishes the experience, the VR provides a wholly contained, focused, immersive experience. The experience is so overwhelming that you quickly forget you're not sitting in a cinema.
Surprisingly, Samsung couldn't tell me if audio headsets would be provided with the VR package. A good, comfortable noise cancelling headset would be a must for use in an aircraft. For prolonged use, Samsung might also want to consider making the headset more comfortable.
The device wasn't without its usage concerns. The Note 4 gets hot - real hot. Given the historic occurrences of smoke and fire in an aircraft attributed to mobile phone batteries, the heat generated by these devices can cause potential concerns.
There's a bunch of general usage warnings that one has to accept before using the device. The effects of using VR for extended periods across the Pacific - coupled with fatigue, turbulence and vision issues - is something that should be investigated.
For those that have a fear of flying, rather than closing their eyes and visualising their 'happy place', they can instead immerse themselves anywhere that they feel comfortable with accompanying sound. If an airline wasn't particularly keen on using the headsets as a universal option, they might like to keep a few spare for those situations where somebody suffers from anxiety or stress.
We've seen clunky handsets on many systems that permit seat-to-seat communications. The VR gear will invariably provide the option for people to meet up in virtual airliner chat rooms... in "person". The concept of an Avatar moving through chat rooms is something that will certainly find its way into mainstream applications, but within the confines of an airliner at 35'000 feet, a local application will be far more beneficial than the ridiculous seat-to-seat chat feature that nobody uses. Perhaps we'll see an emergence of the 'Virtual Mile High Club'?
Any of the apps we've seen designed for traditional flat screens: menus, media menus, airline promotional material, or shopping, can easily be ported into a virtual 3D environment. In discussions with the Samsung rep, we quickly moved to the optimisation of (sales) conversations in a persuasive and immersive virtual environment; one is far more likely to purchase a product if they're able to move around it or see it work.
Virgin Australia was poised to take advantage of their existing relationship with Samsung and introduce the concept (if only for the media exposure) first. Qantas has had a predominant iOS/Apple IFE ecosystem making their entry to the Android market only marginally more difficult and costly. The rationalisation of IFE equipment and suppliers works in the same way as airframes in that multiple suppliers can often increase the cost base and impact upon its financial viability. Should Qantas continue with VR usage, they might well opt for their range of Android tablets as an alternative to their existing iPad solution.
I sent an email to the airline I work for with a number of suggestions they might like to consider. Like everything I seem to send them, we'll either see it implemented without credit or they'll only do it after somebody else does.
Developer? Download the SDK here . If you're interested in talking to us about our own VR projects, get in touch with us.