The most commonly owned VR headset in the world didn't make an appearance at Samsung's big event, but you shouldn't worry too much about it.
While Samsung's Galaxy S9 event took plenty of time to talk about Augmented Reality and all of the ways this new phone is taking advantage of that tech, Virtual Reality took a bit of a backseat. In fact, it wasn't mentioned at all during the launch of the Galaxy S9 event in Barcelona. That's a fairly substantial difference from the year before, when Samsung had the entire audience put on a Gear VR while Mark Zuckerberg snuck by and took to the stage, so there are a few people understandably concerned about the lack of news.
Is Virtual Reality on the way out? Has Samsung abandoned this tech to keep up with Apple and Google? It's actually not that serious, but there are a few things you should know.
The history of the Gear VR
Every big launch event from Samsung over the last couple of years has come with some sort of Gear VR to go with it. But none of those events have ever made the Gear VR a major part of the attraction. With a single recent exception, each of the Gear VR updates we've had since the launch of the Galaxy S6 have been incredibly minor. The Gear VR itself has been largely unchanged over the last couple of years, with revisions being released to make room for the larger sizes of the phones Samsung has been making instead of adding new features or tracking capabilities.
The last major update to the Gear VR to add functionality was with the launch of the Galaxy S8, which added the Gear VR Controller. Because the Controller works independent of that specific Gear VR, it was sold separately so you could easily connect it to any version of the Gear VR. Outside of this update, Samsung has released a Gear VR to make sure the Note 8 and Galaxy S8+ could fit in the headset.
Aside from these minor updates, the only other reason the Gear VR was a big deal with the launch of a phone launch from Samsung is the headset would be given away as a pre-order bonus with the phone. Samsung has given away a Gear VR with each major release for several years now, making it the most widely available VR headset in the world by a wide margin.
Why this year is different
Put simply, Samsung isn't giving away a Gear VR this year because it doesn't need to. The people who pre-order phones largely already have a Gear VR, and because the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ hasn't changed physically this year there's no need to create a new version. The only real reason to update the Gear VR beyond what it is right now is to add new technology, which at the moment isn't possible.
Take a look at what Oculus, the creator of the Gear VR tech, is doing with its first Standalone headset. Oculus Go is functionally not particularly different from the Gear VR. It's got the same 3 Degrees of Freedom (3DoF) setup as the Gear VR, complete with nearly identical controller. Oculus is even making it easy for Gear VR developers to port existing Gear VR games to the Oculus Go, because the headsets are so functionally similar.
There have been rumors of an updated Gear VR headset with capabilities similar to the upcoming Daydream Standalone headsets due out later this year, but it's unlikely we're going to see that from Samsung or Oculus in 2018. For the immediate future, this is as good as it gets for smartphone-based VR headsets. Add that with the volume of Gear VR headsets already in circulation, and there really isn't a huge reason to offer anything other than what is available now.
Nowhere near the end for the Gear VR
Back in December, Samsung celebrated the "second anniversary" of the Gear VR as a full consumer product instead of a developer kit. Despite having been around since the Note 4, Samsung has only been aggressively marketing the headset for the last couple of years. This includes dozens of theme park attractions, fully immersive experiences with total body rotation, and of course a massive library of games for people to play at home. Samsung has invested a tremendous amount of resources into the Gear VR as a platform, and there's no signs of slowing down from the larger team working on the Gear VR.
If you're a big fan of the Gear VR as it exists right now, and had concerns the Galaxy S9 was a sign of the end for that platform, relax. Samsung may be using the stage to focus on the shiny new things coming to the Gear VR, but developers continue to make incredible experiences for mobile VR fans. The S9 and S9+ are going to improve on an already great experience from Samsung and Oculus. For those eager to see something new from the Gear VR, maybe additional features or some more advanced head tracking, we're all going to be waiting just a little while longer.