Back in the 1990s, I remember sitting in a Virtuality-built VR gaming pod wearing a heavy head-mounted display and shooting giant robots. The graphics were rudimentary by today’s standards, the controls sluggish. While the experience was powered by an Amiga 3000 and you viewed the action through a pair of 276 x 372 pixel LCDs. Nevertheless, it felt like the future of gaming.
There’s more to virtual reality than 3D gaming
Today’s VR hardware can (or will be able to) offer a more realistic and immersive experience. And they’re not just for gaming. Devices can be used to give you a big-screen cinematic experience, allow you explore Google Earth, go shopping, talk to friends, attend concerts with a wide-angle view or browse through your photos.
But not all virtual reality headsets are created equal. Here’s a run-down of the main contenders. Which one will you be strapping onto your face in the future?
1. Oculus Rift
What is it? The iconic virtual reality helmet that has ushered in this second age of virtual reality. Built by Oculus VR and originally funded on Kickstarter (to the tune of $2.4 million), the company was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion.
What are the specs? The current version of the Rift is codenamed Crescent Bay, which features 360-degree head tracking and positional tracking via a separate camera. While the previous DK2 version of the headset used two 960 x 1,080 screens, Oculus has not yet revealed the improved display technology in Crescent Bay.
How good is it? “The demos, to a one, were breathtaking, each in different ways. All told, there were 13, ranging from the lifelike interior of a submarine to a cartoonish meadow to standing on the edge of a skyscraper in a Bioshock Infinite-like cityscape… The display was, frankly, astounding.” – Wired
How much? $350 for a DK2 development kit, retail price TBC.
2. HTC Vive
What is it? A head-mounted display built by HTC in collaboration with Valve, the company behind Half Life and Portal, and the architect of the Steam digital game store.
What are the specs? Still a prototype, the hardware uses two 1,200 x 1,080 displays, 360-degree head-tracking, location tracking (via additional SteamVR laser base stations) and it connects to a PC via HDMI.
How good is it? “It was the most immersive experience, and frankly, the most fun I’ve had with a VR headset strapped on my head. The ability to walk around the room and directly interact with objects around me makes a huge difference. It’s made me a convert to VR.” – Engadget
How much? TBC. But it should be available before the end of the year.
3. Google Cardboard
What is it? A low-tech cardboard mount for a smartphone, shaped like a pair of VR goggles. It’s about as far removed from the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift as you can get.
What are the specs? Either build it yourself from cardboard, lenses, magnets, velcro and a rubber band or buy a ready-made kit from a company like DODOcase. It will work with Android and Apple smartphones, which divide the display to mimic the appearance of two separate screens.
How good is it? “It’s early days for the medium, and no-one’s put any of the simple-but-beautiful virtual worlds that already exist, like Minecraft and Proteus, into entry-level VR platforms like Google Cardboard. When that begins to happen, and it will, expect nothing less than a revolution in how we consume entertainment.” Wareable
How much? Free to download the plans; $25 for a DODOcase cardboard viewer.
4. Gear VR
What is it? The Gear VR from Samsung uses key technology from Oculus VR and is designed to be used wirelessly. But like Google Cardboard it relies on a smartphone to act as its display.
What are the specs? The lightweight system is just a futuristic headband without a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 to provide the split-screen visuals (via its 2,560 x 1,440-pixel, 5.7-inch OLED display) and track head movement, although future Gear VR models will also support the newer Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge.
How good is it? “Surprise: Gear VR is good! Far from poisoning the VR well, Samsung’s Gear VR might actually be the thing that helps it go mainstream, considering you don’t need a fancy PC to run it, you don’t need to attach a cable to the side of your head, and you can run many of the most mainstream VR experiences without ever needing to pull it off your face.” – PC World
How much? £189.99 for the helmet. But you’ll also need a Galaxy Note to go with it.
5. Project Morpheus
What is it? An Oculus Rift-style VR headset for the Sony PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.
What are the specs? The newest hardware includes a split-screen 1,920 x 1,080 OLED display (960 x 1,080 pixels per eye) and supports 360-degree head-tracking. It is also designed to work with PlayStation Move controllers and the PS Eye, which is used for positional tracking.
How good is it? “The game Sony is proudly showing off for Morpheus v2 is The London Heist, and it might be the best VR experience yet. This is far more contained than many of the intergalactic space games and open environments that VR has been used for so far, but as I’ve learned over the course of my time trying out different headsets, these more intimate experiences can be the most incredible.” – TechRadar
How much? TBC.
6. Carl Zeiss VR One
What is it? The VR One takes the same mobile Virtual Reality approach as the Samsung Gear VR and is designed to fit smartphones with displays between 4.7 and 5.2 inches.
What are the specs? At the time of writing, custom slide-out trays that fit into the front of this $99 plastic headset will accommodate either a 4.7-inch 1,334 x 750 pixel iPhone 6 or a 5.1-inch 1,980 x 1,080 pixel Samsung Galaxy S5.
How good is it? “Neither its content nor overall experience come close to being on par with the Oculus Rift or Gear VR, but the good news is once we start seeing more Google Cardboard apps (and other universal VR content) popping up in the App Store, the VR One will only get better.” – Gizmag
How much? £119.
7. Avegant Glyph
What is it? A mobile virtual display that projects images directly onto your retina, built into the strap of a pair of chunky noise-cancelling headphones.
What are the specs? There’s no screen. Instead, the Glyph’s “Virtual Retinal Display uses one million micromirrors in each eye piece to reflect a sharp, vivid and lifelike image directly onto the back of your retina.” In real terms, that’s a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels each eye. There’s head-tracking too.
How good is it? “Avegant deliberately opted for [a viewing angle of] 45 degrees, as it expects most people to use the Glyph to watch 3D movies or to play non-VR games: a movement-sensitive head-mounted TV rather than a convincing virtual environment.” – Stuff
How much? $599 for the Glyph Beta.
8. Razer OSVR
What is it? The Razer OSVR Hacker Dev Kit is a headset designed to promote and support the Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) ecosystem. According to Razer, it’s a combination of headset and software that enables “programming for any variety of VR technology.”
What are the specs? The Oculus-style headgear is built around a 5.5” FHD OLED Display with a resolution of 1,080 x 1,920 pixels. Like most other VR solutions, it supports 360-degree head-tracking using a built in accelerometer, gyroscope and digital compass. The design is open-source.
How good is it? “While this may strike the interest of plenty of curious gamers expecting a cheap way to snag an Oculus-like device now, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a consumer product. It’s a developer’s kit, so the package you get may be pretty raw.” – PC Magazine
How much? $199.99.
9. Archos VR
What is it? Another Google Cardboard approach, a mobile virtual reality headset designed to work with a variety of smartphones.
What are the specs? That depends on the sort of phone you plug into it. Archos says that its product is compatible with screens ranging from 4.7 inches to 6 inches, but a 5-inch display with a full HD 1,080 x 1,920 pixel screen (or higher) will deliver the best results.
How good is it? Like Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and the Carl Zeiss VR One, the Archos VR is only as good as the phone you plug into it and the VR apps available. The list of iOS and Android apps isn’t that impressive at the moment, but this can only improve with time.
How much? Only £25.
What about Microsoft HoloLens?
Yes. We haven’t we mentioned Microsoft’s HoloLens or Magic Leap in this round-up. That’s because these two headsets are technically Augmented Reality (AR) systems with some virtual elements. We’ll cover AR separately in a future article. – Dean Evans
Have you tried a VR headset? Or are you planning to buy one? Let us know your experiences or thoughts in the comments below.