Virtual Reality is a computer-generated scenario that simulates experience through senses and perception.
It is a fascinating way to travel using nothing more than the power of technology. With a headset and motion tracking, VR lets you look around a virtual space as if you’re actually there. It’s also been a promising technology for decades that’s never truly caught on. That’s changing with the current wave of VR products.
Oculus has the popular Rift, HTC and Valve have the Steam-friendly Vive, Sony launched the excellent PlayStation VR, Samsung recently added a separate controller to its Gear VR, and Google’s Daydream is steadily growing from the remains of Google Cardboard. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Windows 10 mixed reality platform and a variety of hardware manufacturers working on it are waiting in the wings. There are a lot of promising headsets across a lot of different price and power spectrums
The Big Question: Mobile or Tethered?
Modern VR headsets fit under one of two categories: Mobile or 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 Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream View are relatively inexpensive at around $100, and because all of the processing is done on your phone, you don’t need to connect any wires to the headset.
However, because phones aren’t designed specifically for VR, they can’t offer the best picture even with special lenses, and they’re notably underpowered compared with PC- or game console-based VR. Qualcomm showed off some cool 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 your room. And Google announced standalone Daydream headsets from HTC and Lenovo that don’t require a phone and use built-in position tracking.
Tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR are physically connected to PCs (or in the case of the PS VR, 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 built-in motion sensors and an external camera tracker, drastically improves both image fidelity and head tracking. Windows 10 mixed reality headsets will likely see similar advantages and disadvantages, but those devices haven’t yet been released to consumers (the Rift and Vive work with Windows 10 systems, but aren’t part of the Windows 10 mixed reality ecosystem Microsoft is building).
The trade-off, besides the clunky cables, is the price. The least expensive tethered options are currently around $400. And that’s before you address the processing issue; the Rift and the Vive both need pretty powerful PCs to run, while the PS VR requires a PlayStation 4.
Sony PlayStation VR
Sony’s PlayStation VR is my current Choice for virtual reality, offering the most polished and easy-to-use tethered VR experience with a relatively reasonable price tag. You can only play proprietary titles on it, like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, but a theater mode lets you play any PS4 game as if you were sitting in front of a large screen, and the VR games I ’ve tried has impressed me.
Like the Rift, it also requires an additional investment for full functionality; you need a PlayStation Camera for the headset to work at all, and a PlayStation Move controller bundle for motion controls. Still, a bundle including all of those things is available for 449$ or 30,000 rupees.
HTC’s Vive 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 can track your movements in a 10-foot cube instead of just from your seat. It also includes a set of motion controllers more advanced than the PlayStation Move. But even its newly reduced $600 price is pretty hard to get past, and PC-tethered VR systems like the Vive need plenty of power, with HTC recommending at least an Intel Core i5-4590 CPU and a GeForce GTX 970 GPU.
Besides the included motion controllers, you can now get new tracking accessories that let you play certain games more naturally. These accessories use the Vive Tracker, a module designed to enable additional object tracking in 3D space. The current first-party accessory bundles available are the Hyper Blaster and Racket Sports Set, each $149.99. The Hyper Blaster includes a Nintendo Zapper-style gun, a Vive Tracker, and a code for the shooting gallery Duck Game. The Racket Sports Set includes a small ping pong paddle and a larger tennis racket, both of which can be attached to the pack-in Vive Tracker, and a code for Virtual Sports. A third-party manufacturer, Rebuff Reality, also offers TrackStraps that add leg and foot tracking to the Vive, at $24.99 a pair.
HTC unveiled a standalone Vive headset that doesn’t require a connected PC, appropriately called the Vive Standalone. The device will be exclusive to China at launch, and there’s no word on if it will ever come to North America.
The Oculus Rift was the first big name in the current resurgence of VR, and Oculus still a major player. While the retail version of Oculus Rift is more expensive than the developer kits were, it’s also much more advanced. From a technical standpoint, the headset is nearly identical to the Vive. It also includes the excellent Oculus Touch motion controllers, can support large-area VR like the Vive, and at $399 is a full $200 less than the HTC Vive—and even less than the PlayStation VR with Move controllers.
Google’s Daydream is similar to Cardboard in concept. You still put your phone in an inexpensive headset (the $99 Daydream View), and it functions as your display thanks to a set of lenses that separate the screen into two images. A pairable remote you hold in your hand (similar to the Oculus Remote) controls the action. It’s impressive when you can find apps that work with it, and an SDK update allowing for simultaneous Cardboard and Daydream support is helping to expand the platform’s library
Samsung’s Gear VR is one of the most accessible VR systems, with a catch. To use the newest Gear VR, you need a compatible Samsung Galaxy smartphone (currently eight devices, ranging from the Galaxy S6 to the S9). This narrows down potential users to people who already own compatible Samsung phones, since buying one just to use with the Gear VR pushes the price to HTC Vive levels. On the bright side, Samsung regularly bundles the Gear VR with its flagship phones, so if you’re planning to pick up a Galaxy S9, you might get a headset for free with the purchase.
The $130 Gear VR is a bit more expensive than both the previous iteration and the Google Daydream View, but it comes with a new Bluetooth controller equipped with both a touchpad and motion sensing, in addition to the touchpad built into the headset itself. Samsung collaborated with Oculus to build the Gear’s software ecosystem, which features a solid handful of apps and games, and multiple ways to consume 360-degree video.
Microsoft has been promoting its partnership with multiple headset manufacturers to produce a series of Windows 10-ready “mixed reality” headsets. The distinction between virtual reality and mixed reality is so far dubious, but it indicates an integration of augmented reality (AR) technology using cameras on the helmet. Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo are some of the early partners in Microsoft’s mixed reality program, and they have most recently been joined by Samsung, which has its own Odyssey headset.
Microsoft has also been working on the HoloLens, an expensive and still developing augmented reality headset with a lot of potentials. Just keep in mind that AR is not VR.