Experiencing is believing: Virtual reality hits New Zealand stores

It once was nothing but a science-fiction fan’s dream, but now it’s happening. With the first headsets available for pre-sale via electronic store Noel Leeming last weekend, virtual reality has become a consumer reality – and I headed along for a sneak preview.

Step one is to whisper the magic word in a sales guy’s ear, and then you sit down at a desk (trust me, you need to be sitting down for this, not standing) and don a set of goggles with a Samsung S6 phone slotted in the front.

OK, so you look like you’ve gone back to that time in kindergarten when you made a Star Wars mask out of a cardboard box, but who cares about being a nerd.

You feel the same sense of awe as you did as a kid with a brand new, shiny toy.

I don’t consider myself a geek by any means, but I was geeking out. It’s pure, unadulterated fun as the screen turns on and the real world switches off from around you.

First I was Iron Man in the Avengers, able to glance down at my bulky, iron arms and a crew of superheroes around me.

I revelled in my new-found role as a badass, but the scene quickly changed before I got used to it.

I was out by a satellite in space, casually looking back at earth.

Then I was in a more everyday sort of situation, seated in a dimly lit movie cinema watching a movie.

I could see rows of empty seats around me and if I cared to crane my neck around, I could even see the projector at the back of the theatre.

That threw me, as did the Noel Leeming sales assistant chatting to me as this was happening. How could I be simultaneously be experiencing two environments at once?

I followed my urges, turning around to explore the movie theatre, reaching out to grab the arm of the seat beside me.

Whoops, I almost grabbed the poor sales assistant’s hand instead.

It’s easy to see why disorientated first-time users hilariously flail around, bump into things, get nauseous and even let out a guttural scream if someone so much as pushes them (see video).

Sure, virtual reality purists might tell you this isn’t the legitimate, real deal, like the Oculus Rift. It’s Oculus software through a Samsung phone. And it’s not high definition, so you can’t fully suspend your disbelief.

But it comes pretty damn close. It’s surreal and I will happily be the girl donning the alien-looking goggles again.

I can’t wait to see where this virtual reality software goes next, and when other senses get incorporated into it (hearing, touch, smell and even taste) it’ll be madness.

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The Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition, which goes on sale in June, is the first headset of its kind to be sold in New Zealand, paving the way for an inevitably expanding market as other devices by Oculus, Microsoft and Sony join the party next year.

In-store demonstrations of the smartphone-powered device launched across 20 Noel Leeming NZ stores nationwide last Saturday, with pre-orders are available on the website for $299, and delivery in early June.

Customers showed a keen interest and pre-sales are going really well, executive merchandise manager Jason Bell says.

“The way it’s tracking, the first shipment will be sold out before it even arrives,” Bell says.

Virtual reality is the merging of a real life experience with a virtual world.

The Gear VR works by a user plugging in their Samsung S6 or S6 Edge smartphone and putting a pair of goggles on, which shows them a video, photo or game in 3D.

The user has a full 360-degree view of whatever world they are immersed in, and that tricks their mind into thinking its real.

Though virtual reality devices have long been lauded by tech-geeks and gamers, it’s on its way to becoming a significant product in stores for every day consumers.

“It’s still in an early adopter stage, this is the first real consumer product we’ve seen in New Zealand come through,” Bell says.

“But if you look globally, the forecast is quite staggering in terms of how big the market is going to get.”

Business Intelligence forecasts that the virtual reality market will be worth US$2.8 billion (NZ $3.8 billion) by 2020.

“And that’s a consumer-driven number,” Bell says.

Sure, virtual reality purists might tell you this isn’t the legitimate, real deal, like the Oculus Rift ... But it comes pretty damn close.

Currently, the entertainment industry is the one taking using virtual reality devices to their full potential through gaming and movies, but the possibilities for where the technology could next go in the future are vast.

Bell says people could use virtual reality headsets to go to an open home without having to visit the house, watch the next Rugby World Cup from home and even attend a concert without actually being there.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who bought Oculus for US$2 billion last year, has also spoken of what could happen in the future with virtual reality.

“Immersive gaming will be the first... But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home,” he wrote on Facebook last year. 

Bell says being the first Kiwi retailer to sell the technology cements its place as market leaders in consumer electronics.

“One of our key goals is to bring our consumers new technology before everybody else. It helps make Noel Leeming be the authority in that space,” he says.

He says it’s most likely going to stock future developments in the virtual reality category, too.

This includes Oculus, which plans to start shipping its first consumer product in 2015, Sony, which wants to launch its Morpheus VR Headset next year and Microsoft, which hasn’t announced a release date for its HoloLens.

“This is a really good extension of wearables technology category,” Bell says.

It started with fit-bits and sports watches linking to your smartphone and now this. The wearables category is going to be significant [for retail] moving forward.”