Virtual reality gadgets have been on the market for quite some time now. After the VR explosion, all of the big names in VR have launched their VR platforms. Whether it’s here for good as an established and widely accepted product category remains to be seen. VR is a fascinating technology. It puts you somewhere else, using a headset and motion tracking, letting you look around a virtual space as if you are actually there.
It has been a promising technology for decades but has never truly caught on. But with the current wave of VR, all this could change. Oculus has released the consumer-ready Rift, HTC and Valve have put out the Steam-friendly Vive, Sony has launched the excellent PlayStation VR, Samsung continues to incrementally improve its Gear VR, and Google’s Daydream platform is just starting to emerge from its Cardboard cocoon. Across a varied price and power spectrum, a wide variety of VR headsets are available in the market.
There are basically two broad categories for all VR headsets: Mobile and tethered. Mobile headsets are shells with lenses into which you place your smartphone. The lenses separate the screen into two images for your eyes, turning your smartphone into a VR device. Mobile headsets like the Google Daydream View and Samsung Gear VR are not very expensive and there is no requirement for wires to be connected to the headset because all of the processing is done on the smartphone.
However, PC or game console-based VR sets are much better than those that require a smartphone because phones aren’t designed specifically for VR so they do not offer the best picture even with special lenses, and they’re underpowered as well. At a recent consumer electronics and technology trade show, Qualcomm came up with some amazing Snapdragon 835-powered prototype headsets that let you walk around a virtual space without needing to be plugged into anything or have sensors installed around the room.
Tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are physically connected to PCs or in the case of the PlayStation VR, the headset is connected to a PlayStation 4. The cable makes them a bit unwieldy, but putting all of the actual video processing in a box you don’t need to directly strap to your face means your VR experience can be a lot more complex.
The use of a dedicated display in the headset instead of your smartphone, as well as the use of built-in motion sensors and an external camera tracker, drastically improves both image fidelity and head tracking. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive need very powerful PCs to run.
Tethered headsets are less expensive as compared to the mobile ones. Below is an overview of the best VR headsets and accessories.
Google Cardboard Kit
The low-cost Google Cardboard viewer is perfect if you are new to the whole VR experience and do not want to spend so much on something you are skeptical about. This VR device works with most modern smartphones. It will give you the most basic VR experience but you’ll be able to try out stuff like Google Street View and 360-degree videos. If you enjoy this basic experience, you can safely consider moving on and upgrading to a better and full-fledged VR headset.
Sony PlayStation VR
Sony’s PlayStation VR is offering the most polished and easy-to-use tethered VR experience with a relatively reasonable price tag. You can only play proprietary titles on it, but theater mode lets you play any PS4 game as if you were sitting in front of a large screen. Like the Oculus Rift, it requires an additional investment for full functionality; you need a PlayStation Camera for the headset to work at all, and a PlayStation Move controller bundle for motion controls. Still, the total cost is less than the price of the Oculus Rift.
The PlayStation camera is not bundled alongside the base headset, but it is a required purchase for the PlayStation VR. It does a fairly decent job of keeping pace with your headset and controller movements, but if the camera can’t see the tracking lights, your experience won’t be smooth. It is not as fabulous as the Vive’s tracking, but it’s affordable and easy to set-up.
Many PlayStation VR games work fine with the stock controller, so the Move controllers aren’t technically mandatory. You can play VR Worlds, Rez Infinite, and Rhombus of Ruin just fine with the DualShock 4, but Job Simulator and Batman: Arkham VR are completely off the table. If you want to really feel like you’re inhabiting a virtual space, the Move is a vital piece of the puzzle.
HTC Vive/Steam VR
HTC and Valve teamed up to release the HTC’s Vive. It is a comprehensive package that includes a headset, two motion controllers, and two base stations for defining a “whole-room” VR area. It’s technically impressive and is the only VR system that tracks your movements in a 10-foot cube instead of from your seat.
It also includes a set of motion controllers more advanced than the PlayStation Move. But it is very expensive and needs a very powerful PC like all PC-tethered VR systems. HTC recommends at least an Intel Core i5-4590 CPU and a GeForce GTX 970 GPU.
Whenever we think VR, the Oculus Rift comes to mind. It has become synonymous with VR, even if the brand has lost some of its luster against the HTC Vive and the PlayStation VR. The retail version of Oculus Rift is out, and while it’s more expensive than the developer kits were, it’s also much more advanced. Technically the headset is nearly identical to the Vive. It is cheaper than the Vive, but it lacks the Vive’s whole-room VR. If you want motion controls, you’ll need to purchase the Oculus controllers.
Samsung Gear VR
The most attractive, polished, and accessible VR system is the Samsung gear VR but it comes with a catch. It is only compatible with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. The Galaxy range of smartphones currently offers six devices, including the Galaxy S7 and the S7 Edge. Because of this, the potential users are narrowed down to people who already own compatible Samsung phones.
Because buying a device from the Galaxy range just to use with the Gear VR pushes the price to HTC Vive levels. If you already own a Samsung Galaxy phone, this headset is best for you. The Gear VR features controls built into the headset, a pass-through connector for keeping your phone charged, and is fairly comfortable to wear. Samsung collaborated with Oculus to build the Gear’s software ecosystem, which already has a handful of games and apps, including virtual theaters for watching Netflix and other streaming video services.
The GSMA Mobile World Congress is a combination of the world’s largest exhibition for the mobile industry and a conference featuring prominent executives representing mobile operators, device manufacturers, technology providers, vendors and content owners from across the world. At this international event, Samsung announced a new Gear VR headset that includes a controller but hasn’t yet detailed pricing or availability.
Google Daydream View
Google’s new Daydream is similar to Google Cardboard in concept. Your smartphone is put into the headset, which is quite cheap, and it functions as your display thanks to a set of lenses that separate the screen into two images. A remote is paired with the headset, similar to the Oculus remote, and is held in your hand to control the action. It is impressive when you can find apps that work with it, but the software library is currently very light and it isn’t backward compatible with Google Cardboard apps.
Windows 10 VR Headsets
Through partnerships with multiple hardware manufacturers, Microsoft is coming up with Windows 10-compatible VR headsets. This offer comes on top of the Vive and Oculus Rift. These headsets will use outward-facing sensors for motion sensing, so they won’t need external cameras or sensors like the Rift, Vive, and PS VR. The confirmed partners in this Microsoft venture include Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo. Specific models and availability have not yet been revealed.
Microsoft has also been working on the HoloLens, an augmented reality headset with lots of potential. Just keep in mind that AR is not VR. Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. By contrast, virtual reality replaces the real world with a simulated one.
Microsoft HoloLens blends virtual and augmented reality to make one of the most ambitious launches ever planned. The device merges real-world elements with virtual ‘holographic’ images, meaning you can look at your Minecraft world on your kitchen table, or walk around the surface of Mars in your living room.