There's a time and a place for VR movies, and nailing both makes the experience well worth it.
It's 3AM on the west coast, and I'm wide awake because 6AM Eastern is when I usually wake up and time zones don't mean a single damn thing to my body's internal clock. There won't be anything to do for hours, so I'm alone in my hotel room for a bit. Nothing on the limited hotel channels, so I turn to the half dozen streaming apps I have on my phone for a movie to either put me back to sleep or get me to breakfast time.
Now, I could sit there and hold my phone awkwardly or prop it up on the pillow and partially muffle the audio. It's something I've done hundreds of thousands of times before, especially when sitting in a car waiting for kids to finish gymnastics or for my spouse to finish up an appointment so we can grab lunch together. Instead, I plug my phone into the Samsung Gear VR and enjoy the next two hours watching my movie in VR.
Why would you watch a movie in VR?
If you're left choosing between watching a movie on your phone and watching a movie in VR, there's a couple of great reasons you'd consider the latter. Holding your phone or propping it up somewhere for two hours isn't a great experience. You can't really move around or get comfortable, and the last thing you want is to be one of those people who holds their phone up in the air while laying on their back only to drop the phone on their face.
Watching a movie in VR removes all of these concerns. You can sit or lay however you like and make sure the virtual screen is in front of you, and that screen can be easily moved if you move. Some streaming apps even have a follow mode where the screen is always positioned wherever your eyes are, letting you comfortably watch movies in moving vehicles.
Your hands are free, there's no muffled audio, and most movie streaming apps include a virtual environment that makes everything around the screen look like a movie theater or a recliner on the moon. That last part sounds a little silly, but it's fun!
Where do you watch a movie in VR?
Watching a quick video in VR isn't like watching a movie in VR. When you go to watch a movie in VR, you're committed to an extended period of time in a totally isolated experience. With a decent set of headphones and your VR headset of choice, the rest of the world doesn't exist while that movie is playing. Obviously, there's only a couple of situations where this makes sense. If you aren't alone, for example, watching a movie in VR is hardly appropriate. For the most part, watching movies in VR is a solo act, best conducted when you are already basically alone. For example:
- Alone in a room with nothing good on TV and no way to put movies from your phone on the TV
- On a long flight alone, or next to someone you'd rather not talk to
- Stuck in the back of a car on a roadtrip with other people who wont. stop. talking.
This clearly isn't meant for everywhere. It's generally not a great idea to watch movies in a public place, like on a mass transit bus or train or in a restaurant. Anywhere that requires even a small level of personal awareness is generally a good indicator of when not to try watching a movie in VR. Just about any other time is fair game.
Is watching a movie in VR comfortable?
This depends largely on your environment. Is it comfortable to lay back on a bed and watch a movie as though it is being projected on the ceiling? Absolutely. Is that better than watching a movie on a big, crisp HD television? Not really. No matter what VR headset you're using right now, none of them are as crisp and detailed as your average HD television. The visual quality is still good, just not as good as the traditional methods of watching a movie.
You also have to be comfortable wearing your VR headset for that amount of time, and not everyone is. Something like the Samsung Gear VR will only have enough battery life to watch a full movie if you're using a Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S7, or Galaxy S7 edge. This isn't a problem on something like the Oculus Rift, but the laptops or desktops required to power that headset aren't the most portable things ever.
What apps are good to use for watching movies in VR?
The Oculus Store is filled with video streaming apps, but watching movies is a little different. Still, you've got several great choices!
- Netflix — Not much more needs to be said here. Having access to the whole Netflix library in VR is fantastic, and Netflix works hard to make sure you can use the app in just about any position without a ton of extra work.
- Hulu — While more commonly known for television shows, Hulu has a huge list of movies for you to stream and enjoy.
- Oculus Video — A streaming video service in its own right, but also allows users to access local storage for movies that were downloaded and stored on the phone.
- Oculus Social Beta — A Vimeo/Twitch streming app that lets you watch movies and streams with other Gear VR owners all across the world.
- Moon Player — A video player for locally stored files, with support for 2D and 3D movies.
Is this really worth it?
Watching movies in VR isn't something most Gear VR owners are likely to do every day. This is a nice option to have when you're stuck and don't want to watch a movie off your phone, but uses outside of that specific set of circumstances are limited. Still, if you find yourself in need of a theater you can strap to your face there's little doubt the Samsung Gear VR has exactly what you're looking for. Do yourself a favor and give it a try, fellow Gear VR owners!