With Virtual Reality technology still in its infancy, the risk of buying a sub-par product is quite big. To save you the hassle and embarrassment of buying another white elephant this year, we’ve come up with a guide to make your decision a little easier.
VR headsets generally fall into three categories and the choice vastly depends on how much you are ready to fork out. Here they are:
VR experience on the cheap: Cardboard
Google Cardboard costs “peanuts”, mainly because it is made of cardboard (surprise!) and does not come with a dedicated screen – your own smartphone serves as a one.
Google Cardboard offers you a VR on-the-cheap experience and will set you back a mere $15 (go on, just google it!). For the tiny price, you get a DIY headset. You can assemble it on your own, and slide your smartphone inside. Within ten minutes of getting the package, you can savor your first virtual balloon flight, enjoy amazing 360 Google Spotlight Stories, and plenty more as the immersive content for Google Cardboard is evolving rapidly. From here, you either love it or hate it.
This is definitely the best option to try out to see if VR is right for you without damaging your pocket.
Mid-rangers: Mobile HMDs
Let’s get the jargon piece out of the way first – HMD stands for “Head Mounted Displays”, and applies to both mobile and tethered devices you strap on your head.
A bit of a heftier price can get you a premium headset with a case much sturdier than cardboard. While your smartphone is still required, the case itself can be equipped with additional sensors, more sophisticated built-in controls, quality lenses and focus wheels vastly improving the experience. In this group you would have to go with one of the below two:
Out of all the devices available on the market, Samsung Gear is the one that can guarantee you this superb VR experience, and best value for your money. With Oculus support, and the mobile version of Oculus Store with over 290 VR apps it seems to be the best mobile VR choice right now. However, the Samsung brand is there for a reason – you have to own at least the Galaxy S5 or newer device from the Samsung line of mobile devices.
Google Daydream is an introduction of a Google built VR device dedicated to operate in the currently only mobile VR operating system called Daydream. This is the only device in this price range that comes with a handheld operating device to improve user interaction. Although it has received very favorable reviews, the device currently supports only three mobile devices: Axon7, Pixel and Moto Z – hardly a deal breaker.
Browsing through BestBuy deals you are likely to find VR headsets that will cost you a fraction of the prices above, but they are often only a plastic version of Google Cardboard and have no software support as the aforementioned two.
iPhone users might feel left out here, with the majority of VR hype surrounding android devices. Apple is investing in AR technology, however whether Apple or anyone else decides to launch a dedicated, 100% iPhone compatible device in 2017 remains to be seen. But if we were to take the gamble, we would say Apple will unveil its own VR device in June next year.
If you own any of the Samsung’s modern mobile devices the choice for you should be easy. But if you add the cost of a mobile device, you might actually look elsewhere.
High-end: Bang for your buck
The best VR experience obviously comes at a premium price, and this is mainly because of the quality of internal components used in such sets. Tethered headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR all require external computers or game consoles to work, but have own high-resolution screens, advanced motion tracking, and the best graphics for superior VR experience.
Unlike the previous two price segments, tethered headsets are usually designed with video games in mind. For a complete experience, HTC Vive comes with two custom controllers, Oculus Rift ships with an Xbox One gaming pad, and PSVR uses Sony Move.
These high-end headsets also offer motion tracking and while Oculus and PSVR are more focused on a “siting down” experience – allowing its users to lean, dodge or even crouch, but mainly offering a VR experience from the comfort of your sofa. HTC Vive on the other hand, thanks to a couple of tracking sensors spread across your room allow you turn your room into a full VR playground you can move around freely. In this segment HTC Vive is in a class of its own offering the highest level of immersion. Now the question is…
What should I buy?
If you are still on the fence whether VR is actually your cup of tea, Cardboard would be your go-to set to find out. However, if you take the foray into new technology a bit more seriously, you might need to fork out a bit more for, say, one of the medium-tier devices. Samsung Gear VR is by far the best choice as far as Mobile HMDs are concerned. The headset comes with Oculus Store on board and, as long as you are fine with the the fact that it requires a Samsung smartphone, Gear VR might be the smartest purchase you can make for now. Samsung is putting a lot of effort into developing its “VR baby” and it seems it’s bound to support it further.
While Google’s own Daydream has caused some stir, it is still relatively hard to come by and quite expensive for what it is. What’s more, only the owners of compatible devices Google Pixel and Motorola Moto Z can use the headset to its fullest potential. This guarantees supreme quality but at this stage limits greatly the Daydream platform potential to grow.
If you consider yourself a gamer, your basic choice depends on your platform of choice. PS4 owners will benefit aplenty from PSVR, even more so that Sony seems to be ready to invest lots of money into VR gaming on its eight gen console.
PC gamers should definitely go for HTC Vive, provided that their machines are beefy enough to run VR-supporting games and break no sweat. Like Sony, HTC has high hopes for VR as it has launched its new development and publishing studio dedicated to crafting virtual reality experiences – Vive Studios, HTC’s response to Oculus Studios. Oculus, on the other hand, has introduced its Touch controllers, which is a meaningful addition to the already powerful system, and an effort to catch up market competition.
All things considered, If you’re thinking of buying a VR set this December, there is already a decent selection of products available in every price category.
HTC and Oculus have been relatively secretive about what they have in store for 2017. Both companies are expected to cast the iron while it’s hot and surprise us with mobile variants of their VR products.
Speaking of industry giants: Microsoft’s HoloLens has made some waves on the business market, their consumer market headset is yet to be announced. According to recent leaks Microsoft is planning a new VR headsets built on the experience delivered from many HoloLens use cases. This will allow the Redmond giant to finally join the VR pack and get a chunk of the pie.
With already so many great devices to choose from today, 2017 is certainly shaping up to be the year of VR. Just gear up in time and don’t miss the train.