2016 may not turn out to be the year of virtual reality, that'll happen when Apple finally gets things ready for the iPhone and Mac. But! It is here and it is fantastic.
Samsung's Gear VR is the best virtual reality experience on a smartphone you've ever seen. Okay, it may be the only vr experience you'll see this year but it's great. You strap the headset on, place your phone in the viewer and you're off to other worlds. The Gear VR blocks out the light from the room you're in, removing any sense of reality. The video or games surrounds you, looking up down and all around you're immersed in whatever is playing on the phone.
I've watched YouTube 360-degree videos but the best thing I've experienced with the Gear VR is a video game. Smash Hit is a free app (one of a few) that can be downloaded or streamed. The idea is to throw balls at crystals to pick up more balls and avoid the glass objects trying to put an end to the game. Smash the glass to continue.
Holy Toledo it's fun, and addictive. It's one of those games you need to be sitting down to play, otherwise you'll lose your balance; it's that immersive.
The Samsung VR is $100, the sad thing is it only works with Samsung Galaxy phones. Best Buy has a Samsung experience in many of its stores where you can try on a headset and see what I'm talking about.
Google's Daydream View is another virtual reality headset that just recently launched. It's similar to the Samsung VR but with far fewer games available. Only a dozen or so are in the Google Play Store now. The Daydream is softer and lighter but isn't as comfortable as the Samsung Gear. It also heats up your phone while playing a game and after only a few minutes I get a warning that my phone is too hot and I need to turn it off. That's a buzz kill, especially when you're in the middle of a game or video. The Google Daydream works only with Google's new Pixel phone and the Moto Z from Motorola. Those phones work because they're the only ones that can use the Daydream app. Other phones will likely be added to the list of phones as Android updates become available for them.
Of course there is the Oculus for the pc. Oculus is the gold standard in virtual reality headsets and the technology is what makes the Samsung Gear VR work. It's the same headset.
The Oculus for pc is amazing and comes with a game pad, headset, and a receiver/transmitter. Many older computers can't handle the Oculus software so if you are rushing out to buy one for gaming, check the specs!
Samsung is all over this virtual reality by releasing one of the first 360-degree cameras to the mass market. The Samsung Gear 360 is a camera that looks like an eyeball with lenses on both sides. It sits on a mini-tripod and each lens captures photos and videos in 180 degrees. The smartphone stitches the video/photo together to bring you the 360-degree view. I took it to a basketball game and set it on the scorer's table at midcourt. The result? A fantastic 360-degree view of the court, the player benches and the crowd sitting behind me.
You can upload the video to YouTube or Facebook (but it takes a looooong time to do it this way). The camera stores the video on a mini-SD card which I used to download the video onto my computer. The Gear 360 editing software stitched it together and converted it to a file type that YouTube accepts. You can see the 360-degree basketball video here.
To watch on a computer you'll need to use your mouse, to watch on a smartphone you just rotate the camera. To watch on an Oculus, Samsung VR or Google Daydream you just have to use the YouTube app and enjoy.
Android users can rush out and buy one of these VR headsets now but iPhone users are still waiting. Apple hasn't come out with anything yet, or even announced it's working on a VR device, but you just have to believe there will be something soon. And like most other Apple products it will be amazing.
So while 2016 won't be the year of virtual reality, 2017 will be, provided Apple does what we expect it to do.