2016 is the year of virtual reality, with some of the biggest names in the market finally making their debuts. You might remember virtual reality from when it crashed and burned 3D TV-style in the ’90s, but it’s a whole different ballgame in the ’10s. The blocky, disorienting experiences of the past are gone — with huge leaps forward in processing power and display quality, we can now travel to new worlds that increasingly look as rich and detailed as our own.
But, it’s not the most accessible technology right now. The price tag you find on any given VR headset never reflects the full cost — each one requires an external device to provide the processing power for VR games and apps. In fact, that’s exactly what divides the market into two independent groups. The high-powered home headsets are the ones that garner the most press attention, while the cheaper mobile headsets only need a smartphone to work. Which one of those is right for you? Here’s a starter guide to help you out.
We guarantee you’ve heard of at least one of these. Home VR is a three-way battle, with the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR all coming to market this year. They’re the most expensive headsets for a few reasons. The headsets themselves have more advanced head and position tracking technology and higher definition displays, along with their own dedicated external processing units. They also require much more expensive gaming PCs to function (with the exception of PlayStation VR, which requires a PlayStation 4).
The higher specs make a difference. While the current race to improve the display quality of smartphones is getting past what the human eye can discern, things change in virtual reality, where the display is right up against your face. Having a higher-resolution display and more processing power creates more believable, immersive worlds that render smoothly in real-time. That last bit is vital — choppiness or poor textures that would usually be annoyances can be causes of motion sickness in virtual reality.
This all makes home VR headsets a little more inaccessible than the mobile headsets we’ll get to later — while just about everyone has a smartphone these days, far fewer already have tower desktop PCs with the kind of graphics card (generally, a GeForce GTX 970 or better) needed to power home VR. If you don’t already have a PC like that, you’ll have to pay the $600-$800 for the VR headset plus another $1,200 to $1,500 for a good enough desktop PC — a big ask. But, if you want premium VR experiences out of the gate, this is where you’ll find them.
The Oculus Rift put the VR revival on the map after their Kickstarter project in 2012 pulled in about $2.5 million in funding. After the success of their Kickstarter, Oculus started shipping out development units to backers before infamously selling the company to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. After a couple years of fine-tuning using the much bigger wallet of Facebook, Oculus released the Oculus Rift headset to the general public in March with a $600 asking price.
The Rift has a 2160 x 1200 OLED display inside the headset, which amounts to 1080 x 1200 per eye and a 110-degree field of vision. The display has a 90 Hz refresh rate, a must for VR headsets — the high refresh rate ensures that the picture looks smooth, which prevents any motion sickness from cropping up. An external unit uses an IR LED sensor, which scans the entire room and keeps track of your position in it. This means the Rift can track not just your head movements (allowing you to look in all directions in virtual reality), but your entire body’s movements, making for a more immersive experience (this works within a 5′ x 11′ room). There are also integrated headphones for surround sound-like audio.
The Rift needs to be connected to a Windows PC to function. At a minimum, that PC will need an Intel Core i5-4590 (4th generation) CPU, an NVIDIA GTX 970/AMD R9 290 video card, 8 GB RAM, multiple USB 3.0 ports, and Windows 7. All told, a PC like that will likely cost you at least $1,000, so if you don’t already own one, getting the Oculus Rift could cost almost $2,000. You can also shop Oculus’ Rift-ready PC/headset bundles, which start around $1,500.
The Oculus Rift ships with an Xbox One controller, but later this year the company will release Oculus Touch, a pair of handheld controls with joysticks, buttons, and triggers. These controls will work with the Rift’s position tracking, so you can actually feel like your hands are present in virtual reality (instead of feeling floating head syndrome).
Software is accessed through Oculus Home. For now, this includes a handful of games and 360-degree videos that you can purchase. Being that Oculus is owned by Facebook, you can bet there’s going to be a lot of social uses, too, but those aren’t ready yet. Then again, with Facebook’s record with privacy, data use, and advertising, you would be justified in being skeptical of what Facebook has planned.
The Oculus Rift is available now for $600, and Oculus Touch is rumored to have a $200 price tag when it launches later this year. You can shop for the headset or bundles directly from Oculus or on Amazon.
Who it’s for: Gaming enthusiasts interested in the social experiences Facebook might develop in the future.
Next page: HTC Vive and PlayStation VR