I’ve probably spent a few hours total at various press events with some version of Samsung’s Gear VR strapped to my head. My takeaway is always the same: This is great, but I wish it worked on more smartphones. Now Samsung is selling a $99 version of Gear VR that’s compatible with its four latest flagship devices. That’s a solid start, but if the company wants to make something really amazing and dominate the virtual reality market, it needs to figure out a way to add support for non-Samsung phones.
It won’t be easy to add support for other smartphones to the current version of Gear VR, which is designed specifically for the Galaxy S6, S6 edge, Note 5 and S6 edge Plus. Maybe Samsung could offer custom inserts to fit other devices? More likely it could release the schematics needed for other phone-makers or third-party companies to design those inserts themselves. In the future, Samsung could also redesign the Gear VR entirely so it snugly fits any smartphone within a certain range of sizes.
The one other big issue is screen resolution. Samsung’s flagship phones all offer a Quad HD display, so that would probably be a prerequisite for any phone to work with Gear VR. That rules out a lot of mid-range devices along with even the newest iPhones. Still, there are plenty of high-end handsets out there that meet this qualification, including the LG G4, LG V10, Sony’s Xperia Z5 Premium, the Moto X Pure Edition, the DROID Turbo 2, the Nexus 6P and the BlackBerry Priv. Even Microsoft’s Lumia 950 and 950 XL pack Quad HD displays, though adding Windows support is a whole other issue.
Expanding the Gear VR beyond Samsung’s own phones would bring an affordable and impressive virtual reality experience to a whole new audience. Sure it might keep a few people from picking up a new Galaxy device, but the company could make up the difference by selling even more headsets. As a result, Gear VR might even dominate the entire industry instead of simply existing as a perk for Samsung smartphone owners.
You can make the argument that what I’m really describing is Google Cardboard, which works with most Android devices and iPhones regardless of size or specs. Cardboard’s open and affordable design is awesome, but it’s also missing a lot of what makes Gear VR so powerful. Samsung’s included extra sensors in the headset provide for a smoother experience and a headband for added comfort. Combined, that makes it possible to immerse yourself in virtual reality for longer experiences instead of just a few minutes at a time. Cardboard is a nice introduction to virtual reality, but there’s no comparing it to Gear VR.
We also already know that Samsung is willing to sacrifice exclusivity for success. The company did something similar for the Gear S2, its first smartwatch to work with non-Galaxy devices. That gave the already-great wearable a big boost of support from the larger Android community.
Now Samsung needs to do the same for virtual reality.