The Gear VR and the Potential of Mobile VR (Brain Training, Fitness and More)

By on April 21, 2016

I recently opted to purchase a Gear VR with the intention of developing apps for it. I’m about to buy a house, so I wasn’t sure if now was the time to be splashing out on new technology but then I reflected on what this actually was…

The opportunity to create software for virtual reality.

Whether that would mean creating a productivity tool of some sort or a brain training program, the fact is: this is about as ‘Tony Stark’ a thing as I’m likely to do in real life any time soon. So of course I should get it!

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I bought the Oculus Rift DK1 a couple years back and actually did develop an app for it that sold a few copies. But this is now a commercially available piece of hardware that runs on Android. I already make Android apps. This is my chance to crack one of the most exciting emerging markets like… ever.

So yeah, I bought one. And I’m pretty excited about it. Here’s why…

What is the Gear VR?

Firstly, what is the Gear VR? This is obviously a virtual reality headset in the same vein as the more powerful Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The difference is that it isn’t powered by a gaming PC like those two but rather by your smartphone – which also provides the display and some of the sensors. You simply take your Galaxy-branded phone, slot it into the headset and you’re good to go!

This means of course that your phone defines the experience in many ways. The software of course needs to be capable of running on a Note 5, S6 or S7 and the pixel density and resulting screen-door effect is also determined by the resolution of the device.

But the headset is much more than just housing for your phone. Unlike something like Google Cardboard, the Gear VR also supplies additional sensors and gyroscopes to improve head tracking. A trackpad and a few buttons on the right hand of the device lets you interact with certain apps. And there’s a proximity sensor that launches the app as soon as you put the device on your face and some software wizardry courtesy of Oculus to provide low persistence for the display.

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So this isn’t a high-end device like the Vive or Rift but it’s also fairly more advanced than something like Cardboard or all the cheap ‘VR headsets’ you can buy in discount stores. In terms of limitations, the biggest setback is that it only offers rotational tracking. This means that you can turn your head 360 degrees but you can’t lean forward and back, duck or tilt to either side. This means no looking around corners and sometimes when you try and do that and the image doesn’t track with you, it’s a little disorienting.

Overall though, it’s less of a problem than you might expect. The software on offer here does an excellent job of working within the limitations on the whole and there are a lot of very fun experiences to be had.

The Software

When you set-up the Gear VR, you’ll be walked through the process of installing an app store. This is where you can find experiences and install games, videos and tools.

And surprisingly, this part of the experience is very well fleshed-out. The Gear VR has actually been around in one shape and another for a long while now (an ‘innovator edition’ was available to developers early on) and store provides an excellent distribution platform for finding new content.

I previously owned the DK1 and that was a different story. In the early days of the Rift, the only way to get content was to trawl through forums and find half-baked ideas and experiences.

But the Gear VR really does feel ready for the big time and it’s relatively easy to discover a wealth of great games, videos and apps. And the really impressive thing about some of these experiences is that you want to continue using them after the novelty has worn off. The VR genuinely adds to the games for example but they’re also just fun and polished titles in their own rights.

Lands End for instance is a brilliant puzzle game that sees you exploring stylized worlds and moving large objects with your ‘mind’. Smash Hit is a popular mobile game that works incredibly well in VR and is truly immersive and addictive. My favorite game so far though is definitely Viral which involves travelling through rooms and corridors and shooting at ‘viruses’ that look like little robots. There’s an awesome sense of depth and when you’re shooting up pipes or blasting through doors it’s often tempting to try to duck and weave out of the way!

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When it comes to showing the device off to family and friends, the thing that seems to get the biggest reaction is the Google Streetview app. This lets you look around pretty much any location you can imagine in 360 degrees and while the photos aren’t always perfect, it’s pretty mind-blowing. My Grandma got to visit her motherland in Germany and Hannah and I took a stroll around the hotel we stayed in on our honeymoon. I’m currently planning my friend’s stag and I’ve been using the device to check out potential destinations!

The only big downside to the current software selection is the pricing. I’ve yet to experience the much-lauded Gunjack because it costs £7.99 to download! That’s just too steep for an impulse purchase in my opinion and it feels especially jarring when you compare it to the price of a typical mobile game.

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The Potential

What really surprises me though, is that I am now well and truly sold on the concept of mobile VR. Previously I had thought this would always be a cheap alternative that wouldn’t amount to much more than a gimmick. But now I have the Gear VR, I see that it’s a legitimate option and that the experiences it’s capable of delivering are still pretty mind-blowing. And because the device is portable and easy to use, it’s something you’re actually more likely to whip out at a party or to have a quick go on yourself when you have a free ten minutes. And because it’s not tethered in anyway, it’s more fun being able to spin around and explore the environment without being tangled up by lots of wires.

The graphics aren’t a big setback seeing as photorealism often isn’t the way to go anyway. And in the future, the resolution will improve as we start to see more 4K devices.

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To me, the biggest limitation is the lack of positional tracking and this is where things get interesting: because that might actually be on the way. ‘Project Tango’ for instance is the codename for Google’s aim to add sensors capable of positional tracking to more devices. They’ve demonstrated how using computer vision and SLAM (i.e. image analysis using a dual camera set-up), it is possible to track movement through 3D space. Already, people have taped together their Gear VRs with the currently available Project Tango tablet in order to achieve true untethered VR. Check it out here.

Moreover, one team of developers claims that you don’t even need Project Tango to accomplish that. A Swedish company called Univrses claims that it has already been able to produce positional tracking in VR using the regular camera found on the S6 and S7. Check that out here. This is basically the same kind of technology seen in self-driving cars.

For me, untethered positional tracking VR is crazy exciting as a means to create some awesome fitness training/martial arts apps. I’m thinking X-Men style war room! Or at the very least, dodging some bullets… Of course some of this is already possible with the Vive but that’s limited to an extent by the need for a long bunch of cables hanging from your back…

Throw in a gesture controller (maybe the Rink from Samsung?) and you might have a full VR experience at a relatively low price. And actually, this ‘inside out’ kind of positional tracking may make more sense than the lighthouse solution offered by the Vive. It’s certainly easier to set up!

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There’s also some scope for augmented reality applications on the Gear VR thanks to a ‘peer through camera’. I tried one app called Spectacle that lets you view the world with filters but along with most examples I’ve seen the FOV is very limited and there’s a little latency to contend with. Still, it’s certainly interesting for future iterations.

There’s a ton of potential here then, not only for the Gear VR but for mobile VR on Android more broadly. And it seems Google knows this too, seeing as they’re building native support for VR right into Android N!

VR for Brain Training and Productivity

One of my biggest interests regarding virtual reality in general, is the potential for it to be used as a brain training tool. If we can simulate reality, then we can create highly realistic scenarios for training purposes. It would be much easier to trigger the kind of emotional/nervous response needed for true brain plasticity if you could fool the brain into thinking it was in a truly life-threatening situation. One of the big complaints with brain training at the moment is that the skills learned in memory games might not be ‘transferrable’ to the real world. But if those challenges were integrated into real-world type scenarios using virtual reality, then that problem might be mitigated. Basically, we might be able to Lawnmower Man ourselves. I’ve talked about this before here.

And to my pleasant surprise, there’s actually already a brain training game available on the Gear VR! It’s called Cerevrum and it’s basically a cross between Lumosity and a space shoot-em-up.

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The app is free (!) but currently only offers one mini game (more are on the way). And unfortunately, I found that one mini game to somewhat squander the potential of brain training in VR. The games essentially amount to memory/attention games that don’t massively take advantage of the VR medium. Don’t get me wrong – it’s polished and nicely made and I’m very glad someone is looking into this subject – it’s just that I feel it could stand to be a lot more ambitious.

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This is something that I’m hoping to toy around with as well and I also have a few productivity apps for the Gear VR in the pipeline. I’m hoping to bring Multiscreen Multitasking to VR and create some kind of Minority Report interface for working and sifting through notes. I’m getting a lot of inspiration simply from looking at the interfaces used in games and apps on the device – menus and HUDs are having to be completely rethought and that alone is pretty interesting to watch.

I’ll let you know how developing for the device goes of course (I have about 100 projects on the go at the moment, so don’t hold your breath…). In the meantime, I expect to spend a lot of time shooting robots and surfing cyberspace in VR. I would highly recommend that you do the same!

 

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I’m an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I’ll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.