Earlier this year, we put together an introductory guide to virtual reality — handy for anyone planning on giving or getting a VR headset this year. We split the headsets up into two groups — headsets powered by high-end gaming PCs or video game consoles and headsets powered by smartphones. For the latter, with the exception of more expensive headsets like the Samsung Galaxy Gear VR (which have their own displays and sensors), many don’t include electronic parts — they’re basically large smartphone cases outfitted with convex lenses, giving your smartphone screen the kind of spherical, stereoscopic look needed for feeling like you can look around you in all directions.
The purest form of that idea is Google Cardboard, a cardboard box with lenses and a slot for a smartphone. It was Google’s cheeky way of proving how simply VR could be done, and to their credit, they did inspire many other companies to create similar, more fully-featured headsets. Problem is, most are uncomfortable — Cardboard needs to be held up to your face, tiring out your arm in pretty short order. Others use a lot of plastic, making them heavy or uncomfortable on the nose or face.
One of the headsets we didn’t mention in our VR guide is Merge VR, and it set out to solve that last problem. Merge VR is one of the headsets that lacks electronic parts, relying completely on your smartphone to supply the display, VR content, and head tracking. Those headsets represent the lowest-end VR experience in terms of both price and performance, but for anyone curious about VR and unwilling to spend the $1,000+ required for a high-end VR setup, they make sense.
The good thing about these kinds of headsets is that they’ll work with any phone that’s not too big or too small to fit into the headset snugly, regardless of operating system. For iPhone owners, they’re the only option available — unless Apple themselves make a VR headset, it’ll stay that way. The Merge VR headset has an open slot on top for your smartphone, plus side slots for ventilation and plugging in your headphones. Because it’s made of a flexible foam, almost any smartphone can be stuffed into Merge VR, although for phones as big as the Huawei Mate 9, a bit of the display will stick out of the top slot. You can make sure your phone isn’t too big or too small easily if you buy in-store — there’s a measuring stick on the back of the Merge VR box that you can hold your smartphone up to.
Merge VR nails comfort. The whole headset is made up of a durable foam reminiscent of what stress balls are made of. Give it a twist or a bend, and it springs back into form in the same way. Using foam instead of plastic makes the headset much lighter and more comfortable to wear for longer periods. It also prevents the headset from pressing too hard against the bridge of your nose or your forehead, which is a big problem with plastic headsets. The elastic straps are comfortable and fit securely, too. Because the headset is a little more form-fitting, there are fewer problems with light leaking in from the periphery and disrupting the VR experience. The open slots on the top and sides also help with ventilation — some other headsets will get too hot, fogging up the lenses, but I never had that problem with Merge VR. Unfortunately, the headset is a bit too small to comfortably accommodate those who wear glasses.
Like most of these simple VR headsets, Merge VR has a pair of convex lenses that can be moved from side to side — when you put the headset on, you can adjust those lenses until they’re situated squarely in front of your eyes, making the picture clearer. The lenses give Merge VR a 90-degree field of view, which is a bit narrow for VR. You’ll find yourself having to turn your head quite a bit to see anything that isn’t directly in front of you. The only big problem with Merge VR in particular is that the sliders for lens adjustment are set into the foam — it’s not as precise a method as a dial, and it can be difficult to get the lenses lined up properly.
On top of the two lens sliders are a couple of physical buttons. Mobile VR generally only has very simple games — anything that requires much more than looking at the screen requires a remote or a gamepad. Merge VR’s buttons open up a few more options, but they’re limited, too — the buttons are mechanical, moving levers that tap the screen to make things happen in-game (like shooting a gun or picking up an item). The buttons were reliable while I was testing the headset. However, games that use the buttons generally require you to keep your fingers ready to press those buttons. You’ll have to hold your arm up, which can get a bit tiring after a few minutes.
The other little quirk that sets Merge VR apart is the pop-out window on the back. That’s to free up the phone’s rear camera, so you can also use Merge VR to play augmented reality games up close (games that use the real world as a backdrop, adding virtual details on the screen). AR games largely aren’t developed with VR in mind, though, so some games will play and look better than others.
Being a simple smartphone holder-style VR headset, any VR, AR, or 360-degree content available on iPhones or Android devices (or Windows!) can be used with Merge VR. Because it’s still the early days of virtual reality, finding games, videos, and apps can be a little difficult, so Merge VR has done a bit of curation. A little card in the box points you to www.vrstart.com, which has lists of apps, games, and videos by category. This includes things like the New York Times‘ VR app and simple games like Romans from Mars (in which you shoot waves of invading aliens dressed like ancient Romans). Apps on the website link you to the download page from the App Store or Google Play — good news for Android owners, because you can be sure you won’t be downloading anything from third-party app stores, which often as not ends in you getting malware.
It’s still hard to find good VR games. There aren’t very many good ones — the worst part isn’t that most games are too simple, but that they don’t actually use virtual reality to add to the gameplay. It takes a lot of power and developer know-how to bring gameplay into 360 degrees, and it’s just not present much in mobile VR. Right now, the best use of headsets like Merge VR is to watch 360-degree videos, and fortunately, YouTube now has quite a large collection you can browse.
Because Merge VR relies on your smartphone to provide the display, how clear your VR experience is depends on the resolution of your phone’s display. 1080p displays, while otherwise great, aren’t good for VR — the pixels are noticeable enough to make the picture look very grainy and fuzzy. Phones with 1440p displays fare much better, but those are few, far between, and very expensive. The lenses on the headset are high-quality — as long as you’ve managed to get them positioned just right, you won’t notice any distortion on the edges of the lenses.
Merge VR is pretty simple — it’s a brick of foam with a smartphone slot and a pair of lenses. But, it’s managed to make the most of what it is. Merge VR is the most comfortable VR headset we’ve tried, and its clever backdoor makes it one of the few AR-friendly headsets out there. The little buttons on top can add a bit extra to gameplay, even if they’ll tire out your arms after a while. That said, it’s also a bit expensive for what it is. Originally $80, Merge VR now retails for $60. For something that lacks electronics, that still seems a bit much, but it is a well-designed headset. There are no obvious flaws besides fiddly lens adjustment, and if you’re looking for comfort above all, it’s probably worth the extra spend.