Samsung GearVR (Note 4 edition) review: Virtual reality gets a great demo kit

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I’ll admit: When Samsung first announced it was creating its own virtual reality headset, I rolled my eyes. “Oh great, another me-too product from Samsung,” I thought, envisioning a future where people’s first taste of virtual reality came from some half-baked piece of garbage Samsung pushed out the door to capitalize on the VR craze.

The irony? I now use Samsung’s GearVR almost exclusively to introduce someone to the world of virtual reality. It’s perfect for that purpose, even if it lacks the specs and depth to be a true enthusiast device.

Untethered from reality

GearVR is the best thing to happen to virtual reality so far, but not—I think—for the reasons Samsung intended.

See, Samsung is selling GearVR as a consumer device. If you have a Note 4 (or an S6) you can buy a GearVR right this moment. Officially. That’s more than can be said about either the Oculus Rift or Valve/HTC’s Vive.

GearVR (Note 4)

But you shouldn’t buy GearVR, probably. It’s not a great consumer device. We’ve only had our GearVR review unit for a few months and it’s already been outclassed by the new S6 version. Mobile and virtual reality developments are so rapid, your brand new GearVR is bound to be outmoded in a year at most—and there’s no guarantee new apps will continue to support old GearVR hardware.

Speaking of apps, developers haven’t exactly rallied to the GearVR’s store the way they’ve rallied to Oculus Share (the DK1/DK2’s official app portal). Despite the fact you can sell GearVR apps, there are still (as of this writing) merely 39 games, 11 apps, and 13 “experiences” in the entire store—many of them made by Samsung itself. Contrast that with Oculus Share’s 500 or so DK2-compatible demos, most of which are free and far more extensive.

Suffice it to say, I don’t use GearVR much at home. I’ve got a DK2 sitting on my desk, and it’s my VR platform of choice.

On the road? It’s a different story.

The biggest problem facing virtual reality is convincing people to try it. Every day I meet (whether online or in person) skeptics. “We’ve tried VR before,” they say, or “I don’t think this will ever take off.” And maybe they’re right.

GearVR (Note 4)
“Wait, you want me to strap this to my face?”

But I’ve also met a fair number of people who were skeptical until they tried an Oculus Rift for the first time. I’ve also met tons of people who have no idea what to expect, don’t even really understand what VR is, or are laboring under the misconception it’s only for games.

What Samsung and Oculus have done with GearVR is make an ultra-light, ultra-portable demo unit. It’s the perfect device to get people over the “try it, I swear it’s cool” hump and give them their first taste of virtual reality. How do I know? Because I’ve taken it on trips and done literally just that.

Listen, I love my DK2 but anyone who owns one can tell you it’s sort of a nightmare to demo, especially on the road. It’s a hydra of wires, especially once you add in the position-tracking camera, headphones, and a controller or mouse/keyboard. At any given moment, I’m using between two and five of my computer’s USB slots for the DK2. That’s not demo-friendly—both because it’s intimidating to anyone who’s not a hardcore PC gamer/tech enthusiast and because it’s a huge pain to haul around.

The software experience? Just as bad. You’re ever-conscious of the fact you’re runningdemos that may or may not work on your machine. After two years of VR I have a stable of favorites I trot out for people who’re interested, but even then there’s a 50-percent chance something goes wrong before we’re done.

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By contrast, no other VR device is as sleek or easy to set up as GearVR right now. Your Note 4 (or S6) simply slides into the familiar MicroUSB slot on the headset and clicks into place. Voila. You’re done. Put it on (it’s not too heavy) and you can control all of the GearVR’s functions with the controls on the side of the headset—a touchpad for swiping/tapping, a back button, and a volume rocker.

And because it’s a phone, you can plug headphones right into the 3.5mm jack, pair a Bluetooth controller if you want, and off you go. There’s no positional tracking unfortunately, but there is head tracking, thanks (again) to the fact it’s a phone with internal gyroscopes.

Some other neat phone-only perks that aren’t in the DK2: The back camera can act as a video pass-through, allowing you to walk around and do tasks with GearVR still on your face if you’re so inclined. The front camera senses whether you’ve removed the device and automatically turns off the screen and pauses what you were watching.

My favorite addition is a built-in focus adjuster, though. With both the Rift DK1 and DK2, demoing to someone with glasses means literally removing the lenses from the headset and replacing them with a different pair. What happens when you remove the lenses? Well, if you’re not careful hairs and dust fall inside and end up on the screen, and become an enormous pain to clean out.

GearVR with glasses? “Turn this knob until the words look clear.” Brilliant, and something the Oculus Rift/HTC Vive consumer versions definitely need to ape.

It’s also impossible to overstate how freeing GearVR feels with no wires attached. Even with SteamVR’s single cord, I was constantly aware of something tethering me—and afraid I’d get tangled in it. With GearVR, I never have to pause someone’s demo to say “Wait, you’re getting wrapped by the cable. Spin the other way.”

GearVR (Note 4)

Software-side, GearVR is just as easy. When you plug the Note 4 into the GearVR headset it launches a VR-specific dashboard controlled by aiming your head at specific options and tapping the touchpad to confirm your choices. It’s elegant and a far cry from getting kicked back to Windows after exiting a DK2 demo, or fumbling for a mouse/keyboard with the Rift over your eyes.

Even better, Samsung and Oculus created a fantastic “Welcome to VR” video that’s the perfect demo for those who’ve never experienced virtual reality before. It’s just a short little film (three minutes or so) that kicks off with you floating above Earth before running through a few other experiences (a Cirque du Soleil performance, a man playing music in a studio apartment, et cetera).

I’ve shown that film to probably three dozen people now, from teenagers to grandparents, from people who can barely work a cellphone to those who play games all day, from friends in San Francisco to distant relatives in Italy. Every single one of them, at some point during the video, has smiled and said something like “Wow” or “Fantastic” or (in the case of the aforementioned Italian relatives) “Bellisimo.”

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Here’s my awesome grandpa checking out virtual reality—something I never thought I’d see.

And I get it, because that’s how I felt when I first tried VR. The difference is I was strapped into a comparatively low-res DK1, wrapped in wires, and walking around theUnreal 4 demo.

There are a few other apps worth recommending, despite the GearVR’s paltry selection. Oculus’s official movie app comes preloaded with some trailers and is an excellent showpiece for the potential of VR cinema—watching Interstellar on the moon, for instance. Darknet is a fun puzzler. Samsung’s MilkVR app updates weekly with new 360-degree videos, and is a great resource once you’ve exhausted the Welcome to VR video. And a few desktop favorites have been ported over—Titans of Space and Ocean Riftmade it from my stable of DK2 demos to my stable of GearVR demos.

But all that comes later. First things first, you need to convert people to VR believers. GearVR is the best way I’ve found to start that process.

Bottom line

Do you need GearVR? Probably not, unless you’re deep into virtual reality already and are of the “collect-them-all” mindset. There are too many unknowns for me to recommend GearVR as a consumer device—especially considering Samsung’s bound to release an exponentially better version next year. Thus goes mobile development. Thus goes the breakneck pace of virtual reality.

That doesn’t mean GearVR is bad,though. Far from it. GearVR is a fantastic device—and maybe the most important step VR’s taken since the DK1, as far as consumer appeal. The problem is it only fills a certain, very small niche. One you probably (statistically) don’t fit into.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

 

Facebook will now update your News Feed based on time spent on a story

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You’ve been warned: Facebook is about to become even more captivating.

On Friday Facebook announced that it will start taking into account how much time users spent viewing a particular story as a determining factor for that story showing up at the top of your News Feed. Basically, the stories you take the time to read (or watch) will be prioritized over the stories that you scroll right through out of general disinterest.

“We’ve discovered that if people spend significantly more time on a particular story in News Feed than the majority of other stories they look at, this is a good sign that content was relevant to them,” wrote Facebook software engineers Ansha Yu and Sami Tas.

Historically the Facebook News Feed has only considered the number of likes, comments, and shares in its super-secret ranking algorithm. But Facebook discovered that users don’t always like or comment on otherwise captivating stories that resonated with them.

“Based on the fact that you didn’t scroll straight past this post and it was on the screen for more time than other posts that were in your News Feed, we infer that it was something you found interesting and we may start to surface more posts like that higher up in your News Feed in the future,” the Facebook engineering team added.

This News Feed update will take into account the speed of your Internet connection as to not misinterpret a slow connection for interest, and Facebook does not expect stories posted by Pages to be significantly affected by this change.

The impact on you: Facebook’s News Feed continually gets tweaked to surface the most relevant stories based on your Facebook activity and what your friends post and share. In the last year, Facebook has updated News Feed to include more stories from your closest friends (based on your Facebook connections, of course) and trending topics so you won’t miss out on timely stories. Facebook has also put its foot down and reduced how often hoaxes, click-bait and overly promotional stories show up in your News Feed.

The Xbox-Oculus partnership won’t harm HoloLens

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Oculus VR revealed the final version of its Rift virtual reality headset on Thursday, but the partnership between the Facebook-owned company and Microsoft may have raised some eyebrows.

Under terms of the deal, an Xbox One controller will come with the Rift, people will be able to stream Xbox games to the headset and the device will be compatible with Windows 10.

Although Facebook and Microsoft have collaborated on various projects for several years, this partnership may seem strange. After all, Microsoft is developing its HoloLens headset for augmented reality, and it has demoed it in conjunction with its Minecraft game.

But upon closer inspection, the Rift and HoloLens provide very different virtual experiences.

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Microsoft’s HoloLens behind a glass case.

Two different things

Rift deals with virtual reality and makes users feel like they’re in the digital environment, while HoloLens deals with augmented reality and layers holograms over the real world, said J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

“The immersive gaming you can do in the Rift, you can’t do in HoloLens,” Gownder said.

For example, during its recent Build conference, Microsoft demonstrated HoloLens with Minecraft and had people play the game on a coffee table. With HoloLens, the furniture in a person’s home becomes part of the experience, he said.

Even though Microsoft has showed HoloLens can be used for playing games, the company has instead emphasized enterprise uses for the headset, he said.

For example, Microsoft has demonstrated how architects could use HoloLens to create models of buildings they’re designing or how medical students could study 3D images of the heart.

Another sign that HoloLens will be aimed at businesses primarily is that it’s a self-contained computer and thus will be likely pricier than the Rift, which needs to be hooked up to a Windows PC, he said. Microsoft hasn’t yet announced pricing for HoloLens.

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The Oculus Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller.

“Going where the customers are”

Moreover, the partnership with Facebook will help Microsoft in the virtual reality gaming space, where it lags behind Sony, which makes the rival PlayStation game console, he said. Sony’s virtual reality headset, called Project Morpheus, comes out next year, which is also when the Rift is scheduled to ship to consumers.

Getting its technology to work with the highly anticipated Rift allows Microsoft “to go where their customers are” and shows the company isn’t interested in “playing platform wars with everything,” Gownder said.

Meanwhile, Oculus gets access to the Xbox games, giving Rift users content to choose from, and, by including an Xbox controller with the headset, makes the virtual reality experience more interactive.

Giving people a way to interact with a digital world is a key part of virtual reality and the controller bundle is a “good first step” in providing that connectivity, he said.

Although the Rift will only work with Windows PCs, at least initially, and require version 7.1 of the OS are higher, don’t expect these requirements to lead to a surge in Windows 10 sales, Gownder said.

The people most likely to buy the Rift are high-end PC users with machines that already have the required computing specs, he said.

Gmail for Android gets safer with OAuth authentication for Microsoft, Yahoo accounts

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Google is making it safer and easier to add third-party accounts to Gmail for Android. Soon Gmail users will see the option to add Microsoft and Yahoo accounts via OAuth. That means users will no longer have to enter their user names and passwords into Gmail for Android to add these services.

Instead, Gmail will rely on Microsoft and Yahoo for authorization. If you’re logged in to your Outlook.com account, for example, Microsoft will present users with a button to allow Gmail for Android to access your account. Once that’s done, Microsoft gives Gmail a token (basically a text file) that allows the app access to that account.

If the user isn’t logged in to Microsoft, they’ll have to go through the Outlook.com login process before getting to the OAuth screen.

While OAuth is new to Gmail for Android, it’s something most users should be familiar with. Anyone who’s ever authorized an app to access a Facebook or Twitter account, for example, will be immediately familiar with the Gmail for Android process.

The new Gmail for Android feature is rolling out now. Google says it should be available to all in the next few days.

The impact on you at home: OAuth support offers a higher degree of security, because you don’t have to enter your account details into Gmail for Android. That means an unknown vulnerability in Gmail for Android could never leak your Microsoft or Yahoo credentials, because it doesn’t have them. In the event of a hack, OAuth also allows you to quickly de-authorize Gmail for Android with one click from your Microsoft or Yahoo account settings. In addition, Google says OAuth makes it easier to use added security features like two-step verification, which typically won’t work when you enter a primary password directly into a third-party app.

Facebook’s lean Android app is less than 1MB in size

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Facebook has released a stripped down version of its Android app aimed at growing its service in developing countries and other areas with poor connectivity.

The Facebook Lite app is less than 1MB in size—far less than the regular app—making it quick to download and install. It retains core features including the News Feed, status updates, photos and notifications, Facebook said. The company had been testing the app since at least January.

The app started to roll out Thursday in some Asian countries, and will be available in parts of Latin America, Africa and Europe in the coming weeks.

It arrives at a time when Facebook is working aggressively to expand into new markets. The company also has a project called Internet.org, which provides free access to Facebook and selected other services in India, Ghana, Kenya, and other developing countries.

More than 80 percent of Facebook’s daily users are located outside the U.S. and Canada, and it hopes to reach many more users who live in areas where network services are poor or data costs prohibitively expensive.

The company didn’t announce any plans for a similar stripped down app for iOS.

Facebook Messenger dumps auto-location tracking for a pin drop

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Facebook Messenger is making location sharing a little less creepy, with finer controls over when to divulge your whereabouts.

Previously, Facebook Messenger used a location toggle that was enabled by default on Android phones, and required a one-time permission on iPhones. With the toggle turned on, every post would include location details automatically. Recipients could then view the sender’s location with a tap, or even use an extension to harvest friends’ data over time.

With the new version of Facebook Messenger for iOS and Android, users must choose to share their location manually. By tapping the “More” button or the location pin at the bottom of the screen, users can see a map with a location pin, which they can send as a separate message. Users can also drag the pin around the map, which could be useful for showing a past location or future meeting point.

As TechCrunch reports, Facebook sees the new location tool as a foundation for much greater things. The company hinted at tying location into other services, so for instance users could coordinate pickups in a ride-sharing app like Uber.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has stalled on automatic location sharing. Last year, the main Facebook app gained an voluntary feature called “Nearby Friends,” which would track your location and alert you when your favorite people were in proximity. But Facebook’s help page says the feature is “only available in some areas right now,” and at least on my iPhone, there’s no trace of it.

Why this matters: Just as Facebook backtracked on the “frictionless sharing” of the songs you listen to and the webpages you visit, the company has realized that automatic location sharing is a burden. As the hypothetical Uber example shows, sharing can be much more powerful when people have control over it.

3 mobile games that help you get things done

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Let’s face it: some of the tasks we do every day are pretty mundane. Maybe even downright boring. Yet, we still have to do them. Whether it’s checking email and making sure we’ve responded to all of the appropriate messages, or remembering to write that daily report every single day, there’s a lot of stuff do to. But staying motivated to complete even the most tedious of tasks doesn’t have to be a chore in itself. Here are three apps that make it downright fun.

Wonderful Day

wonderfulday
It may not look like much, but that simple green dot is the start of what should be a very long chain, representing plenty of completed tasks.

You may not think a simple string of green dots could motivate you to get things done. But that just means you’re not familiar with Wonderful Day, a 99-cent iOS app.

In some ways, Wonderful Day isn’t all that different from you basic task manager or to-do list app. It lets you add a list of tasks or activities, lets you tell the app how often you’d like them done – every day, every Monday, every weekday, or something similar. You also can tell the app what time of day the activity needs to be done, and set a reminder if you need one.

Once the task is complete for the day, you check it off in the app, and you begin building a chain of green dots. The goal is to keep building the chain without breaking it, with the idea that the more often you do something, the more likely it is to become a habit. And while green dots don’t sound terribly motivating, they actually are when you look at them – especially when you see a lengthy chain that you don’t want to break. Wonderful Day also awards medals when you create a lengthy chain.

Wonderful Day is not designed for one-off tasks, so it won’t motivate you to finish that massive year-end report. But it’s very easy – and fun! – to use, so if you’re looking for a simple way to stay on top of those daily to-dos, Wonderful Day is for you.

HabitRPG

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HabitRPG’s graphics are basic, but they don’t detract from the fun of playing the game.

If building a chain of green dots doesn’t sound like enough of a game for you,HabitRPG may be just what you need. This free app for Android and iOS (with a Web version, too), turns your entire life into a game. And yes, it can help you become more productive along the way.

HabitRPG lets you add habits (both good and bad), daily tasks (called “Dailies”), and to-dos. Doing so is easier on the Web version than it is on the mobile app, which isn’t as intuitive. When you complete one of your good items, HabitRPG rewards you with experience, which allows you to level up in the game, and gold, which you can use to purchase items from the app or from your own list of rewards. The in-app rewards are items like swords for your avatar, which can give you a boost in the game, or items that you choose, like taking a break to play another video game. If you complete a bad habit – and own up to it – you damage the health of your avatar, a primitive looking figure you can customize to your liking.

HabitRPG can boost your productivity if you follow its rules, but setting it up and remembering to mark off the items you do or don’t complete can be something of a time suck. Its graphics are rudimentary, so sophisticated game players may be turned off, too. But it’s simple enough to use and offers a fun way to stay on top of all those boring tasks you need to complete.

SaveUp

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SaveUp has plenty of fun prizes up for grabs, including a chance at its $2 million jackpot.

Saving money. It’s something we all should be doing, whether we’re trying to pay down a debt or launch a new business. But, honestly, it’s just not all much fun. Saveup, a free iOS app, tries to make it more enjoyable by rewarding you for making good financial decisions.

To use Saveup, you link your various financial accounts, from credit cards to mortgage loans and savings accounts. I found this process simple, as Saveup included direct links for adding accounts from national banks, like Chase and Bank of America, as well as those from small banks, like the one down the street from my house. When you make a smart financial decision, such as paying down a credit card or putting money in a 401K account, Saveup rewards you with credits. You earn 1 credit for every $2 paid to a credit card or every $1 added to your savings. You also earn credits for adding accounts and watching educational videos.

Once you earn enough credits, you can exchange them for a chance to win various prizes, which include items like store and restaurant gift cards, money, and even cars and vacations. The games you play to win the prizes, which typically include revealing digital cards and looking for matches, feel a lot like you’re playing a scratch lottery ticket, albeit virtually. They’re fun, but they do seem slightly out of place in an app that’s touting financial responsibility. Still, Saveup is easy to use and it makes saving money seem fun and exciting.