The Best VR Headset, Now and Coming Up – Virtual Reality Revisited
In the mid-1990s, virtual reality was going to be the next big thing. However, shoddy graphics, strange interfaces, and high prices all contributed to VR’s eventual fizzle. Fast forward 20 years, though, and once again, VR is the next big thing! This time, however, we think it will stick.
Essential Reading: 2016 Year of Virtual Reality – Possibilities, Options and Concerns
Why? Because it’s just better.
The graphics are better, the hardware is better (and more affordable), and the whole user experience is just more immersive. It feels like virtual reality, rather than virtual stuck-inside-Tron.
And, with more hardware manufacturers and software developers putting their faith in this new digital frontier, consumers feel more confident that this new technology is ready for prime time.
There are a number of VR headsets already on the market, and more are in development. Many are promising, and here are the ones we think are impressive.
A True VR Headset
These are all-in-one headsets, complete with screens, audio, sensors, and everything else. It’s still early in the VR game, though, and many of these are either not yet available at all or intended only for developers. Still, we think they’re all worth a mention, as they’ve all been garnering lots of interest.
1. Oculus Rift
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to what’s going on in the world of VR development — or even new technology — in the last year or two, then you’ve undoubtedly heard of Oculus Rift.
It first made big waves with its two million dollar Kickstarter campaign, and then again when Facebook bought it for two billion dollars, and yet again at all the major electronics shows. Currently in its Crescent Bay prototype, the Oculus Rift is really what made people sit up and take VR seriously again.
It’s easy to see why, with 1080p resolution and 360 degree environments for full immersion. Gamers are interested, of course, and while there are surely possibilities beyond gaming, that’s in Facebook’s hands for now.
Developers and industry insiders have been able to get their hands on one for some time, though currently only the developer kit is available for $350 USD. As for a consumer model, there’s no release date yet.
Anticipation and curiosity about the Oculus Rift is still building, and hopefully that excitement can be sustained until the device is ready for the general public.
the Oculus Rift is really what made people sit up and take VR seriously again.
2. Sony Project Morpheus
Another big name in the triumphant return of VR is Sony’s Project Morpheus. It’s all buzz at this point, as it’s not even out yet, but this headset is a front runner for favourite VR device among industry geeks.
It’s intended to pair with PlayStation and its games — it is a Sony product, after all — and its applications are strictly gaming for now.
The specs look good: a 5.7 inch OLED screen, 120Hz refresh rate, 100 degree field of view, and 360 degree environments. It offers excellent tracking accuracy, and it’s comfortable to wear.
As a bonus, it sort of makes users look like a Storm Trooper when it’s affixed to the noggin. There’s no price information out yet, and it probably won’t be out to the public until at least the first half of 2016.
3. HTC Vive
A collaboration between phone manufacturer HTC and game developer Valve (you know, the company behind Half-Life and Portal), the HTC Vive is definitely the chunkiest looking headset of the ones mentioned here.
There’s nothing svelte about it. However, what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in its VR immersiveness. It’s already turning heads (real heads), thanks to dual 1200×1080 screens, a 90Hz refresh rate, outstanding position tracking, and full range of motion.
There are a handful of games and VR experiences already available, and if the public is as impressed with this device as industry insiders have been, more are sure to come.
There’s no price information on the HTC Vive yet, and it should be available for purchase by the end of the year. An HTC Vive under the Christmas tree?
Maybe, if you’re good!
4. Avegant Glyph
The Avegant Glyph is smaller, sleeker, and at just a pound (or 450g), more lightweight than a lot of other VR headsets. In fact, it looks more like a pair of high end headphones than a fully immersive VR device. Its slim profile can be attributed to the Glyph’s lack of screen.
That doesn’t mean there’s no display, though: it uses a really cool virtual retinal display of two million micro mirrors to reflect an image right onto your retina. Just let that sink into your brain for a minute.
The Glyph’s unusual but definitely advanced image rendering system makes for an amazingly clear visual experience. It also induces less motion sickness and eye strain as compared to other VR headsets.
The resolution is 1280 by 720 for each eye, and there’s a 120Hz refresh rate so the images you see are pretty crisp to boot. A possible drawback is its limited 45 degree field of view, but still, the Glyph’s noise cancelling audio and built-in microphone make it a well rounded device.
Its Kickstarter campaign did insanely well, bringing in over $1.5 million USD. Expected to retail for about $600 USD (around £400), and it should be out toward the end of 2015.
5. Razer OSVR
The ethos of the Razer OSVR is open source: let’s all work together to make great applications for this new VR product. Razer is encouraging developers to start working on it pretty soon, and a Hacker Dev Kit should be out this summer for $199 USD (about £130).
The device itself can do a lot. It has a 5.5 OLED display with 1080 by 1920 resolution and 60 fps. The field of view is a full 100 degrees, and the OSVR uses advanced double lens optics so that it’s easy on your eyes.
There are cool games and VR experiences in the works already, with titles like Skyworld and 3rd Planet. There’s also potential for academic uses, with some bigger universities signing on for possible future development.
And yes, there’s porn too. (Isn’t there always?)
AR: Augmented Reality
Augmented reality isn’t quite VR, but it also isn’t not quite VR. What AR does is add VR components to your surroundings. The effect is jarring — you’re clearly seeing and interacting with things that aren’t really there — but it’s also cool.
There are limited offerings in this category, but we do have one bit one to tell you about.
6. Microsoft HoloLens
The name of the product sounds like “hologram,” and that’s precisely what the Microsoft HoloLens does. This newly announced AR headset converges your real world with a digital world, placing holograms in your visual space.
It’s actually kind of nice that you don’t have to choose between reality and virtual reality — with the HoloLens, you can have both.
There are gaming applications for AR technology, of course, but there are also more practical and productive ones: communication, work collaboration, and especially education.
The device itself is perhaps most impressive because it’s totally wireless; there’s no connections needed because Windows 10 is built right into it. (There’s no word yet on how to reboot it following a crash, though we’re sure it will come up at some point.)
The HoloLens has spatial sound, so the audio from the holograms you’re seeing comes from the correct direction. The field of vision is 120 degrees, and the graphics are ultra crisp.
The early reviews are quite enthusiastic, and those are just from industry insiders who used rough prototypes; the final version could be pretty spectacular. There’s no word on cost or even a release date.
We’re guessing it’s at least a year away. There’s loads of potential here.
it converges your real world with a digital world.
Smartphone Based VR (VR Lite)
As the title of this section implies, these VR headsets rely on your smartphone. Specifically, you slip your mobile device inside the viewer.
Then, using the smartphone’s accelerometer, sensors, and display, the headset can simulate a full-on VR environment. These products are generally less expensive than the true VR headsets described above, though most of them are still fairly pricey.
Here are a few models you should know about.
7. Samsung Gear VR
The Samsung Gear VR is made in conjunction with Oculus, so you know that it’s going to provide a great VR experience. The only problem? The only smartphone it’s compatible with is a Galaxy Note. You might as well add the cost of one to the Gear VR’s £190 price tag!
Still, the Galaxy has a Super AMOLED display, making the VR experience look really good on the 96 degree field of vision. Headphones make the audio experience feel more immersive, and there’s already a pretty good selection of apps to use with it.
One especially nice feature of the Samsung Gear VR is the unit’s built-in battery, so you won’t drain your phone while you’re playing all of your VR apps. You want some power left to text your friends about your awesome new toy when the game is done.
It’s a good device for the price (again, as long as you’ve got the right phone), and it’s available now.
The only problem? The only smartphone it’s compatible with is a Galaxy Note.
8. ImmersiON VRelia GO
The GO won a Best of CES award this year, so it’s been generating some buzz. Unlike the Samsung Gear VR, the GO works with just about any smartphone, even phablets up to six inches, thanks to removable brackets.
Its big draw is its advanced optics correction; if you wear eyeglasses, you can take them off to use the GO and still see everything with full sharpness.
Like other smartphone-based VR headsets, high quality headphones make the experience complete. The GO is wireless and lightweight, and you can buy it now. The cost is $139 USD, so under £100, though be aware that there’s a five to seven week shipping lag.
There are a few dozen compatible apps already available, and if the GO takes off, expect to see more.
9. Carl Zeiss VR One
The real selling point of the Carl Zeiss VR One is the Zeiss advanced precision lens technology, which makes everything look really good and feel fully immersive. That’s not too shabby for a headset that relies on your smartphone for a huge part of its functionality.
The VR One works with any smartphone (iOS and Android) between 4.7 and 5.2 inches. (Sorry, phablet pholks!) It offers a 100 degree field of vision.
The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, as the VR One does AR too, thanks to the camera on your smartphone and a transparent front shield. It costs €129,00, or under £100, though you also have to buy the tray for your specific smartphone (which runs around £7).
10. Google Cardboard
And then there’s Google’s offering, simply called Cardboard. Seriously: it’s made of cardboard. If you think about it, a VR headset made of cardboard is actually sort of brilliant. A lot of people are curious about VR, but not curious enough to plunk down £200 or more for a full blown experience.
They’re not even curious enough to put down half that amount to slide their smartphone into a VR simulator. But they’ll fork over £20 just to see what all the fuss is about. For those people, Google Cardboard is perfect. Look at it as VR for the masses.
There are instructions from Google on how to make one yourself, or you can get a box (again, made of cardboard) from several manufacturers for around twenty quid, give or take. There are some fun apps for it out already, and lots of them are free.
Is Google Cardboard as good as Oculus Rift? No! Again, it’s made of cardboard. It’s not nearly as immersive as a real piece of hardware, and let’s face it, the material is going to fall apart pretty quickly with heavy use. (At which point, you may just want to recognise that you love VR and pick up an actual non-cardboard headset.)
Still Google Cardboard is worth mentioning because for a very meagre cost, anyone can get a firsthand introduction to the VR experience.
There’s no VR offering from Apple — yet. This might be somewhat disappointing for the Apple fankids who look to their favourite company for the latest and greatest tech. However, the Apple VR rumours are swirling, and something does seem to be on the horizon.
Jobs for VR developers have been posted. A few VR-ish designed have been patented. Something is coming.
It makes sense, of course, as Apple has never been a company to shy away from the frontiers of new technology.
But how long will it take Apple to come out with a VR device of its own? It’s hard to say; currently, the company seems to have its hands full with its spangly new watch. Plus, Apple does have a history of waiting out the initial hype of a new technology before dropping a killer app (or device, as it were) that reinvents the game.
So, Apple fans, have some patience. You’ll probably be able to get your hands on an Apple iVR (or something like it) within the next few years.
Until then, you’ve got some other VR options. And if you really insist on Apple and Apple only, pop your iPhone into a Google Cardboard. That’s the best you’re going to get…for now.