Samsung, S9, and Gear VR – What is Go-ing on?
Samsung was the first phone manufacturer to embrace mobile virtual reality (VR) with its Gear VR headset in 2015. But when company executives announced Samsung’s newest flagship phones — the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ — at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, they didn’t even mention VR once! What is going on? There may be more to this than meets the eye.
The Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 845 processor inside the Galaxy S9 has lots of optimizations for AR and VR and allows for a number of advanced features, such as on-device artificial intelligence (AI) and so called ‘eXtended Reality’ or XR. The immersive technology is powered by the Qualcomm Adreno 630 visual processing system, which allows the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ to introduce room-scale virtual reality (VR) experiences for the Samsung Gear VR, and for 6 Degrees of Freedom (6DoF) controls with simultaneous localisation and mapping, also known as SLAM. The subprocessor is also capable of using ‘Adreno foveation’ which reduces power consumption during VR experiences.
This gives the potential for inside-out motion tracking using the phone’s cameras, something that Google’s standalone Mirage Solo headset does, but the Gear VR doesn’t yet.
Samsung representatives at the show did clarify that the S9 and S9+ are compatible with the latest version of the company’s Gear VR headset (but only the Galaxy Note 8 version). But no mention of one specifically for the S9. This may not come as too much of a surprise as generally speaking, not too much has changed with the design of the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus and it is compatible with their latest Gear VR.
However, all this may disguise some bigger things going on.
Samsung is believed to be working on a standalone mobile VR headset that’s equipped with inside-out positional tracking and a Six Degree of Freedom (6DoF) controller. Sound familiar? Taeyong Kim, VP of Samsung Electronics, teased the product at the firm’s annual Developer Conference in San Francisco last month, revealing that the wearable will combine the features of the Gear VR and Odyssey.
So it is possible the headset could be the long-rumoured standalone successor to the Gear VR, or possibly a Mini variant of the Windows-powered Odyssey. We do believe though that it will feature the same inside-out positional tracking and 6DoF controller as the Odyssey, though in a portable shell. So it could be a competitor to the Oculus Go or to Oculus’ upcoming Santa Cruz.
All of which may be because Samsung’s business relationships have changed. Samsung’s Gear VR is based on software from Oculus, and offers access to the Oculus store. It is widely believed that the initial agreement between the companies was mutually exclusive, guaranteeing that Samsung phones would only work with Oculus-powered headsets and that Oculus would only license its mobile software to Samsung.
However both companies have since struck partnerships with third parties. Samsung teamed up with Google in 2016 on that company’s Daydream VR platform, and announced last year that the Galaxy S8 and S8+ would be compatible with Google’s Daydream headset. What’s more, Samsung has also partnered with Microsoft for the production of the Samsung Odyssey – a Windows based “Mixed Reality” headset.
And last year, Facebook announced a partnership with Xiaomi to produce the Oculus Go, a standalone VR headset due to be released this spring. Just to confuse matters further, the Oculus Go is powered by a Snapdragon 821 processor, the same as the one inside phones such as the first Google Pixel and the LG G6/S7. This in principle would put it at a disadvantage to any Snapdragon 845 processor powered Samsung headset. However, the Go is rumoured to be heavily stripped down so that it could be on par with the S8 or even S9 equivalents.
We know that you’ll be able to play everything in Samsung’s Gear VR library with the Go, but so far we don’t know if the Go is compatible with full-fledged Oculus Rift apps.
So is Samsung’s reticence due to major forthcoming developments on its own – advanced – VR plans?