Samsung Gear VR headset and Gear S smart watch push the boundaries of wearable tech

Consumer Reports gets a hands-on sneak peek at these cool new devices

Published: September 03, 2014 09:30 AM

Samsung is unveiling a suite of new devices today at the IFA technology show in Germany. The company recently invited Consumer Reports to its Galaxy Studio in New York City for a sneak peak at two new Note "phablet" smart phones and two wearable devices that all should be coming to the U.S., beginning in October. Below is our first look at the Gear VR virtual-reality headset accessory and Gear S smart watch. Click here for our first look at the Galaxy Note 4 and the curved-screen Galaxy Note Edge.

The Gear S smart watch, in front of the Gear VR virtual-reality headset

Gear VR

Samsung developed this headset accessory in collaboration with Oculus VR, the virtual-reality company behind the Oculus Rift that was recently acquired by Facebook for $2 billion. The Gear VR is an accessory that uses your phone's screen and its own motion sensors—a magnetometer, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope. It also has a proximity sensor to detect your face. Initially, the Gear VR will work only with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, a Quad HD smart phone that snaps right into the front of the VR. We got to try the setup ourselves, and our initial reaction is—whoa!

We first watched (and listened to) a demo of a Coldplay concert with an onstage POV; as we physically turned, we saw about 180 degrees of the concert: the musicians, including a dancing and singing Chris Martin, and the cheering crowd beyond them. We also experienced an immersive Avengers game that put us inside Tony Stark’s lab with playable interactive elements—ironically, one of these interactive elements was a virtual Samsung TV.

Senior editor Mike Gikas enjoys the Gear VR

Our demo took place in a small room, but in the Gear VR's virtual environment, we felt as if we were in a much larger space. Also worth mentioning: little to no nausea, which has been an issue with the Oculus Rift and other virtual-reality prototype devices.

Samsung says the Gear VR will offer all kinds of VR experiences: virtual tours, education, movies, concerts, and of course, games. Movies can move beyond 3D into a true 360-degree experience.

The headset has a built-in touchpad and buttons, and you can activate some virtual elements by looking at them. A button on the back activates a pass-through camera, so you can see outside if you need to. You can direct your own route though some VR environments, as well as play, with a gamepad that’s made for the Gear VR. (That will be an extra accessory, said Samsung.) We asked whether two people could share the VR experience. Samsung’s answer: “Not yet.”

The Gear VR is the first commercial product to use Oculus VR’s technology—the Oculus Rift is still in prototype stage. Sony also has a VR headset in the works called Project Morpheus, but that will focus on gaming for the PlayStation 4 console, and no release date has yet been announced.

Samsung hasn’t released pricing information yet, but the Gear RV should ship this fall, we were told. The company also mentioned that a bundle of the Gear 4 and Gear RV will probably be available, at least through some carriers.

For more on wearable tech, check our smart watch reviews.

The Gear S smart watch has a built-in UV ray sensor

Gear S

This new addition to Samsung's Gear smart watch line was first announced last week. But this is the first opportunity we've had to use it. It has an integrated 3G antenna, and is the first smart watch on which you can make and take calls without needing your phone nearby. We tried it on, and also discovered a few details that weren't part of the initial announcement.

On the wrist, the curved AMOLED screen felt like a more comfortable fit than we've found with most flat smart watches (at least in the hour or so that we had to try it on—we'll know more when we get a test sample for an extended period of time). That said, the Gear S is still rather large, but most smart watches are.  

The Gear S’s charging cradle has an internal battery, so you can carry it with you to extend your watch’s battery life. But you can’t wear the watch while the charger is connected.

Among many other sensors, the Gear S has a UV sensor that detects the amount of sunlight you’re being exposed to (and offers advice, such as “Use SPF 30.”) It’s the first smart watch we’ve seen with this functionality built in.

The watch comes in white or black, but you can pop the central unit out of its band and swap it into another band for a different fashion statement—Samsung hinted at more bands to come.

You’ll also be able to get turn-by-turn directions on the Gear S, courtesy of the device's built-in GPS and Nokia’s HERE Maps for Tizen—although no Google Maps for now, at least. Since the Gear S uses S Voice voice commands, you can ask it for your directions verbally, and it will speak them out loud, too.

While Samsung hasn’t announced its U.S. plans for the Gear S yet, it should appear here this fall as well. We'll review both devices as soon as they're available, so check back for more.

—Carol Mangis

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