Samsung Gear VR: How well does it work for inflight entertainment?

Alex Kidman 29 February 2016

GearVR_450

Samsung's Gear VR promises a world of entertainment, but what happens when you actually try to use it while travelling the world?

Travel out of Australia almost anywhere, and you’re guaranteed one thing: long, boring hours sat in a plane seat, waiting to get to your destination. The limits of your budget when it comes to the class of your ticket can help, but only so much, because the speed of the plane doesn’t vary with the price you pay.

The very first time I set eyes on the Gear VR and was shown a trailer demo in its virtual theatre, I figured that while VR experiences could bring simple thrills and games, it would make an awesome way to while away the many hours of inflight tedium that any flight out of Australia entails.

Clearly I wasn't the only one thinking this way. Shortly after the announcement of the first generation Gear VR, Qantas announced that it was trialling the Gear VR for its business class passengers.

Which is fine if you can afford business class, but what if you're flying within more, shall we say, economical constraints?

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On a recent flight from Sydney to London, I packed the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ and the Gear VR (3th Generation) to see whether or not my thoughts around immersive entertainment actually worked within the confines of a budget priced airline seat.

Samsung is clearly keen on promoting the Gear VR; at the time of writing if you pre-order a Samsung Galaxy S7 or Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, Samsung will give you a Gear VR gratis, which is a pretty sweet deal.

Gear VR: Get ready first

There are some significant challenges before you can sit down and enjoy a movie or two in total isolation. You've got to be prepared, because a lot of the Gear VR's experiences, especially video experiences, presume that you've got network access of some sort. In-flight that's not likely to happen at speeds to properly support video, and in most cases it would be cost prohibitive anyway.

That meant I had to side load video onto the phone before I even headed to the airport. I chose several shorts from comedy site Rifftrax for my experiment, largely because they provide legally available video material in a variety of resolutions -- and I rather like their taste in comedy. Your tastes, naturally, may differ. The resolution issue is important however, because you’re looking at video content very close to your eyes. Lower quality resolution looks considerably worse when it’s only a centimetre in front of your irises.

Gear VR

You've also got to prepare some packing space, which for most economy seats is at a premium. You've got to pack the Gear VR, the phone and some Bluetooth headphones, because unless you like reading subtitles, you're going to want audio to go with your movies. It's wise to check first that your airline is happy with the use of Bluetooth headphones as well.

Gear VR: Let me entertain you

We noted in our review that the Gear VR does a great job of immersion, and within the confines of a plane seat that proved to be immensely true.

Unless you're flying in particularly budget constrained ways there's likely to be a small LCD screen with an entertainment offering in front of you anyway, but that's likely to be an 8 inch screen at best. Having your own personal cinema to watch in is much better, with the added benefit that it's entirely private, so you can watch whatever you'd like.

Cinema is perhaps the best use case on a plane as well. I did have some VR games installed on the test phone, but aside from Temple Run they were far too hard to operate sans a controller, because there’s no real way to swing your chair around in-flight for rotational purposes. Or if there is, something has gone badly wrong with the plane and you have far bigger problems to contend with.

Gear VR: The power problem

Power is also likely to be an issue if you're thinking of using it for extended periods of viewing. VR is extremely power hungry, to put it mildly.

Watching around half an hour of video chewed through 20 percent of the Galaxy S6 Edge+ battery, and that's a device that's hardly a battery slouch. You could mitigate that somewhat if your seat features USB power, but you'd have to wait between viewing sessions to recharge your phone.

Gear VR: People are strange

It's also, to put it mildly, going to make something of a spectacle of yourself. Almost anyone on any given flight is likely to take note of the fact that you've got a full VR headset strapped on.

If you're socially conscious, you may find it odd to be sitting surrounded by people -- which you are -- but unable to easily see any of them. I also found turbulence more than a little worrying, simply because the full immersion of the Gear VR experience does fully disconnect you from the outside world.

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Gear VR: The travel verdict

So is it worth it? If you've got a ready supply of content to watch and can spare the space on your phone, it's significantly better than any inflight video you're likely to see outside of first class suites. As a way to pass the time on a lengthy flight it's excellent -- but do remember to pack additional batteries.

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