It's becoming harder to make an impression in the smartphone game, and so Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. on Wednesday announced not just one phone, but two, plus a virtual reality headset for good measure.
The Galaxy Note 4 is the latest iteration of the company's "phablet" phone line, and a new variant called the Note Edge features a curved screen along its side that displays notifications. The Gear VR, meanwhile, is a full-on VR system that uses the Note 4 as its main engine. These supposed supporting acts to the Note 4's main event were arguably the more interesting devices.
We had some hands-on time with them all and here's what we thought:
Ever since Oculus – the tiny startup that was bought by Facebook earlier this year – wowed people with its Rift, it has seemed like everyone is looking to jump on the VR bandwagon. But as with Oculus, seeing the Note 4's VR capacity is believing. I tried two different demos; one was impressive and the other was pretty great.
The headset comes in three pieces: a bulky pair of goggles that you strap on, a set of headphones and the Note 4 itself, which slips into the goggles. The phone provides the rig's processing power and supplies the playable content.
The first demo had me submerged in the ocean, watching whales and sharks swim by. The graphics were a little cartoonish and not completely realistic, but coupled with the muffled bubbling sounds coming through the headphones, the illusion was real enough.
Of course, virtual reality only begins to feel like real reality when you turn your head to look around, and it's here that the Gear VR really works. I found myself looking up and down and all around, only to discover more and more sea creatures. The movements were smooth, with no blur or distortion at all. I actually caught myself with my arms out in front of me, as if I was trying to buoy myself in the virtual water.
The second, a Marvel Comics-themed demo, placed me in Avengers' Tower, where Jarvis – Iron Man's virtual assistant – guided me through some of the super hero team's gadgets. The graphics in this instance were amazing and in full three dimensions – it did feel like truly being there.
I looked at the Avengers Quinjet and Loki's sceptre and tapped on the touchpad, located on the side of the goggles, at which point Jarvis told me more about the respective items. It was amazingly immersive, but I also wish there was more to it, that I could freely move around the tower and explore.
There wasn't much to experience in either demo, but the fluidity with which they worked was enough to get the imagination working. It's easy to see why VR is being touted – PlayStation maker Sony, for one, believes the technology could represent the future of video games, hence its new Morpheus project. It could be the very near future, if the Gear VR and Oculus are any indication.
Some of the Gear VR's technology is licensed from Oculus itself, so where Samsung can go with it is likely limited. A spokesman said there are no concrete retail plans for the device – which so far only works with the Note 4 – so it may just be a showcase piece that never leaves virtual reality to become, er, actual reality.
A bigger curiosity is the Note Edge, a 5.6-inch smartphone with one rounded side. The curved edge, along the right side of the device, displays notifications and buttons in a thin strip, usually as a sort of ticker. Those buttons and notifications can then be tapped to launch their full, associated applications.
It's a neat feature that works well – you navigate it with simple flicks, the same way you'd move through a smartphone's regular screens.
The standard Android icons for e-mail, phone, contacts and so on that are normally found on the bottom of the phone's screen are thus relocated the curved strip. You can also select from a host of apps that so far include a clock, a Yahoo news ticker, a simple memory game, NFL scores and a few others. Samsung is opening up that curved slot to any app developers that might want to take advantage of it.
The "edge" holds promise – it certainly will be handy as a night-time alarm clock, as you won't have to fumble for your phone and tap the screen to see what time it is, you just have to look over to see its illumination.
On the other hand, it could also be one of those gimmicks that is soon forgotten. It's tough to imagine why an app developer would want to limit themselves to a thin strip along the side of the phone when there's plenty of screen real estate right next to it.
A Samsung spokesman acknowledged as much, but added that the company wants to create opportunities for developers. The "edge" idea will thus sink or swim, depending on whether those developers – and users – find it beneficial.
The original Note and its giant screen was a similar gamble, which Samsung Electronics president Gregory Lee pointed out on Wednesday: "Two years ago the skeptics and cynics said we were nuts."
Sadly, the company isn't saying much about the Edge's availability. It'll be available in select countries later this year, but there's no word on whether Canada will be included.