Virtual reality is here – 2016 is the year when the likes of Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive take the medium mainstream. And it’s well on its way.
For the uninitiated, VR is an immersive experience in which your head movements are tracked in a three-dimensional world, making it ideally suited to games and even movies.
While VR was a non-starter back in the 90s, developers are now creating mind-blowing experiences that look set to revolutionise gaming and entertainment.
But what are the best VR headsets and which one should you choose? We’ve put together the definitive selection of the most gob-smackingly awesome devices just waiting to be strapped to your face.
The HTC Vive, is the Steam VR headset made in collaboration with Valve, the makers of legendary gaming series Half Life, and it hit shops in April.
The HTC Vive plugs into PCs and work with Valve’s mammoth gaming ecosystem. It packs in 70 sensors to offer 360 degree head-tracking as well as a 90Hz refresh rate; the stat that’s key to keeping down latency, which is the technical term for the effect that causes motion sickness. Thankfully, that wasn’t an issue in our review time.
However, the key to the HTC Vive’s success is the Lighthouse room tracking that enables you to move around with the headset on. It means mounting some sensors in your home, but the effect is next level.
Oculus Rift is the headset that started the current hysteria. Developed by Palmer Luckey, funded via Kickstarter and snapped up by Facebook for a cool $2 billion, the Rift plugs into your computer’s DVI and USB ports and tracks your head movements to provide 3D imagery on its stereo screens.
The consumer edition Rift uses a 2160 x 1200 resolution, working at 233 million pixels per second, with a 90Hz refresh rate. It’s high tech stuff, which matches the HTC Vive for refresh rate, but lags behind PlayStation VR. However, given its access to the power of latest PCs, it will be pushing a lot more pixels than Sony’s headset.
Oculus Rift has had some shipping delays, but the headset is finally arriving in homes. The Oculus Touch controllers however, are slated to arrive later in the year, so you’ll have to settle for an Xbox One controller in the box.
Sony PlayStation VR
We finally have a launch date for the PlayStation VR headset: 13 October 2016.
A new version was announced at GDC 2015 and gone is the 5-inch LCD display of the original prototype; in its place a 5.7-inch OLED one which enables low persistence, which should mean less motion blur. The display’s refresh rate has also been ramped up to 120Hz, making 120fps gaming a real possibility.
The reported latency issues of Morpheus Mk1 have been addressed, with a new 18ms reading, and tracking accuracy has been tweaked with a total of nine LEDs now aiding the positional awareness of the headset.
With its low price and pre-Christmas on-sale date, PlayStation VR has the chances to go big – even if by its own admission, the tech isn’t up to the standards of its competitors.
Samsung Gear VR
The Samsung Gear VR is actually Oculus Rift lite, given that the two companies collaborated for the technology.
The Gear VR is simply a case that uses a Samsung Galaxy smartphone as its
processor and display. The handset simply slots in front of the lenses, into a Micro USB dock, and uses its Super AMOLED display as your screen. Slot in the phone, stick on the headset and you’re into your virtual reality experience. The only catch is that you must use a Samsung handset.
We’re not going to lie, the visuals are a little grainy. Like you’re looking at your phone with a magnifying glass – which essentially you are. But there are huge benefits.
It’s already added a
host of games plus a whole marketplace of VR video content called Milk VR, and in terms of content is one of the best platforms out there.
Then there’s the price: The Samsung Gear VR is available for just $99, which is just ludicrous value. It’s just a shame you need a Samsung handset to take advantage.
Not to be outdone, Google announced its Cardboard virtual reality headset at I/O 2014 and unveiled version 2 at the 2015 conference. Popping a smartphone into a cardboard container and then strapping it to your head may sound like a joke, but it actually works and it could become a low-cost way to experience virtual reality.
After all, your smartphone contains all the necessary gyroscopic sensors and positioning systems to accurately track your head movements. Related is Durovis’ Dive, which is essentially the same thing made of higher quality and more sweat-resistant materials.
With the popularity of Cardboard, Google decided it would release an even better one. Called Daydream, the device is pretty much a Gear VR but apparently there’s a whole slew of Android phones getting revamped to provide a better VR experience with Daydream. Companies making the handsets will also likely release their own mobile headsets.
There’s no official date for its release except an estimate for this fall. We’ll update the list to see if the Google VR headset – or any others running the Daydream platform – makes the cut then.
Not a copycat of the big VR headsets, Microsoft HoloLens blends virtual and half augmented reality to make one of the most ambitious launches ever planed. 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.
Using Kinect-style tech to recognise gestures and voice commands, the headset has a 120-degree field of vision on both axes, and is capable of ‘high definition’ visuals, but it’s still a letterbox compared to the likes of Oculus and Vive. More importantly, however, there’s no connection to a PC – a full Windows 10 system is built into the headset and runs off a battery. No, we can’t wait to see how long that lasts either.
The Development Edition is available now for Windows Insider members with a price tag of $3,000.
Meta had a developer kit of its augmented reality headset in 2013 but it’s the Meta 2 that’s really caught our attention. It looks similar to HoloLens with its large shape and helmet-like design, but second-gen headset offers a larger field of view than any other AR headset out and on the way.
At 90 degrees, its three times bigger than the original Meta, and its 2560 x 1440 display plus positional tracking allowing your hands to interact with what you see makes for a very promising device.
But like most AR headsets, it’s not cheap and it hasn’t officially released yet. To get your hands on a Meta 2, it’ll cost $949 and won’t ship until Q3 2016.
Razer OSVR HDK 2
Razer’s OSVR isn’t a rival to the likes of Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Samsung Gear VR. Instead, it’s intended to make life easier for developers to make applications for VR hardware, without technical (software and hardware) limitations getting in their way.
There’s even a newer headset out aptly called the OSVR Hacker Developer Kit 2. It’s got better hardware specs this time around with 2160 x 1200 dual OLED display putting it right up against the big names. However, there’s still some comfort issues to work through. As the name says, the headset still remains open source, allowing third parties to do whatever they want with it.
We have already seen plenty of third parties getting involved to help develop new features, including gesture tracking with a Leap Motion faceplate in the past.
Previously on sale to developers, the general public can now order the first dev kit direct through Razer, although the company is keen to stress that it’s still not a consumer product and, as such, only has a 30 day warranty. The second headset is available July this summer.
FOVE VR differs from the likes of Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR because it offers interactive eye-tracking. Inside the headset is an infrared sensor that monitors the wearer’s eyes; offering both a new control method and an edge on its competitors when it comes to realism.
With FOVE, simulated depth-of-field is possible, due to the system knowing exactly what you’re looking at, and as a result, the virtual should appear more real.
It’s also the ultimate VR lovechild, thanks to investment from Samsung Ventures, Fove claims it will use HTC’s Lighthouse tech for full on room tracking. It’s not the only deal that Fove and signed: it also makes use of the Wear VR software platform and is compatible with Unity, Unreal, and Cryengine game engines.
Zeiss VR One Plus
Like the Samsung Gear VR and the previous Zeiss One, the hardware power for the second-gen Zeiss branded headset comes from your smartphone. Unlike Sammy’s effort,
however, you’re not tied to just one mobile with the Zeiss VR One Plus; it will play
ball with any iOS or Android handset with the latest model allowing larger sizes between 4.7 and 5.5 inches (it previously only fit phones up to 5.2 inches).
It packs a media
player for the likes of pictures and YouTube videos and an AR app for augmented
experiences, while the open source Unity3D SDK (iOS and Android) means there’s plenty of
scope for development. The company is also pushing for drone enthusiasts to pick up the One Plus headset as a means to fly and see from a bird’s eye view – in VR.
What’s more, with lens
maker Zeiss doing the optics, VR One Plus definitely has promise – however the second iteration is only available in Europe right now.
The majority of these
headsets are large and heavy, but Avegant’s Glyph is both sleeker and smaller than the pack.
Its svelte size is due to its display technology: rather than using
conventional smartphone-like screens to present imagery, it uses an array of
micro mirrors to reflect an image directly into your retina.
The Glyph can be worn like a
pair of headphones until you pull the screen down over your eyes, where you can
enjoy 1280 x 720 for each eyeball. And while it’s limited to a 45 degree field of
view, the micro mirror array is said to reduce motion sickness and eye fatigue.
Freefly VR headset
Freefly’s VR headset looks dorkier than most, thanks to those ‘wings’, but who cares? It’s now compatible with the 200+ Google Cardboard apps, plus it rocks 42mm lenses and a 120-degree field of view while faux leather helps to keep things comfortable. It fits any smartphone with a screen between 4.7in and 6.1in, which is admittedly less than an Archos headset but still covers most flagships in 2016.
As well as featuring head-tracking via your phone’s accelerometer, one point of difference over the cheapest options is that Freefly comes with an odd little controller, named Glide, that you hold in one hand. It saves you the cost of buying a Bluetooth peripheral, though we’ve got to say we prefer a two-handed controller for gaming.