News from Oculus Connect: new Samsung GearVR, VR theater experiences and more

Samsung GearVR
Credit: Samsung

Virtual reality is really starting to feel like a carrot on a stick, isn't it? I feel like consumer-level VR has been just out of reach for a few years now, and I'm frustrated that it hasn't quite arrived, but at least we are inching closer.

This week Oculus is holding its developer conference, Oculus Connect, and they streamed the keynote yesterday. If you were hoping for a concrete release date or price, sorry, you're out of luck. We were told that the SDK will hit version 1.0 in December and everything seems to still be on track for the Rift visor to hit retail in Q1 of next year, and the Oculus Touch controllers to ship in Q2 (until they come out you'll be able to control VR experiences using an Xbox controller).

Before that, Samsung's new GearVR will ship. Last year the GearVR "Innovator Edition" came out. It was a $200 device that only worked with the Galaxy S6 or the Note 4. Calling it the "Innovator Edition" was Samsung's way of holding back from a true consumer launch. The new GearVR loses the Innovator tag and $100 in cost as well. Not only will it cost just $100 but they say it'll work with every 2015 Samsung handset. It's supposed to be on sale in time for Black Friday and when it ships I guess we can say consumer-level VR has arrived.

Most of the buzz around VR is focused on games and interactive experiences but Oculus isn't forgetting about more passive activities. Netflix for Oculus was supposed to launch yesterday (I don't have a Rift to confirm that) and Hulu, Twitch and Vimeo are coming soon. Hulu has a blog post about their foray into VR, and it describes watching 2D content in VR from the comfort of a virtual living room, a theater, or even watching Seinfeld episodes from the set's blue couch. Sounds neat but I hope we can 'zoom in' so that the content we're watching takes up most of our field of view. In addition to the streaming services mentioned, Fox announced that they're bringing 100 movies to the Oculus VR Cinema.

Back to gaming. VR puts a lot of demand on a gaming rig since you're generating two slightly different scenes and you need to keep the framerate high to avoid motion sickness. If your PC isn't up to snuff, you might be interested to know that we're going to start seeing "Oculus Ready" badged PCs from AMD, Intel, Nvidia, Dell, Alienware, and Asus starting next year. We're promised that these systems will start at less than $1000 (though that doesn't include the Rift itself). This is another step towards making consumer VR a reality; the average consumer can buy a Rift and an "Oculus Ready" PC and know the parts will work well together.

In terms of software, Epic games announced a VR game for the Rift called Bullet Train (trailer below) and Microsoft announced that Minecraft is coming to the Oculus Rift. Minecraft is apparently the new Angry Birds in that no platform is really complete until Minecraft is ported to it.

I'm still not completely convinced that VR will catch on in a big way. I just fear we're going to find it too isolating; at least those of us who don't live alone. I'm more excited by AR solutions like Microsoft's HoloLens. That said, I wouldn't mind a GearVR setup for watching Netflix and Hulu in complete privacy now and then. What I like about the GearVR is that it isn't a tethered experience so I could kick back on the couch and watch my content on a virtual gigantic screen. With the Rift, of course, you need to run a cable to your PC, so for most of us that'll probably mean sitting at, or standing in front of, our desks. (I absolutely know the first time I stretch a Rift cable across the room, the dog is going to run through it and jerk the visor off my head!) That's fine for gaming but for watching a movie I want to be somewhere I can relax.

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