Virtual reality in 2016 is a complicated place, and it can be hard to know where to begin. Let us help.
2016 is widely expected to be the year of VR by people who believe that virtual reality has a pretty decent chance of becoming a thing. Or it's possible the retail hardware is released, no one buys it and we're about to see one of the worst bubbles in technology since puppets tried to sell us pet supplies during the Super Bowl.
But for now, let's be a bit more optimistic!
There are plenty of people who would love to get going in virtual reality, or would at least love to understand a bit more about the products coming this year. This guide will get you started, and if you'd like to take your first tiny looks into this brave new world, we'll present some low-cost options. This is, on the whole, rather expensive technology, however.
Update (February 2016): Our section on the HTC Vive has been updated to include the final retail price, links to our coverage of games coming this year and a few more details about the retail version of the hardware. The Gear VR section has been updated to include compatibility information for Samsung's upcoming phones.
So what is virtual reality? In simple terms, it's the act of using a combination of computing power and optics to simulate a visual and auditory experience that seeks to fool the user into believing they're someplace else. It seeks to replace reality with something else, rather than enhance it. This is usually accomplished by some combination of optics, headphones and head tracking, so you can look around the virtual environment and, in some cases, move within it in some way.
The act of laying information or virtual aspects over actual reality is usually referred to as "augmented" reality, or AR. For the purposed of this guide, the terms "virtual reality" and "VR" will be used interchangeably, and AR devices like Microsoft's HoloLens will be left for another day.
It's also worth pointing out that nearly all virtual reality devices require external hardware. So when you buy the Gear VR headset, you still need a phone for the screen and computing power. The Oculus Rift requires a powerful PC. Even Googe Cardboard, our first entry and the least expensive way to experience VR, requires an iOS or Android phone of some kind. It's important to understand exactly what you're getting when you buy a VR device, and what else you need to own or purchase separately to get the best experience.
Google Cardboard is the least expensive way to dip your toe into virtual reality, as Cardboard viewers, which are designed to work with nearly any phone, can be purchased for around $20. Google has made it clear that it's serious about virtual reality, and you'll find a wide variety of programs and demos available to try with this platform, although you'll quickly find the offerings are of wildly varying quality.
You can also check out a variety of YouTube videos designed for virtual reality, and Google recently announced that every YouTube video can now be watched in virtual reality. You're not going to run out of content anytime soon, and there are many things to do and see in Cardboard that are very enjoyable, especially if this is your first experience with virtual reality.
The low cost of the Cardboard viewers, which are literally made of cardboard and often shipped flat until you bend them together, is a huge selling point. The New York Times recently gave subscribers a free one with its Sunday edition, allowing many people to try virtual reality for the first time. The possibilities for education are also massive, since low-cost Android devices are already common and the viewers are so inexpensive and welcoming. Getting a viewer, which Google often gives away for free at tech shows, and putting it together is part of the fun.
So you have one of the most respected and largest tech companies in the world backing the standard; hardware is cheap; the ecosystem is strong; there's plenty of content. What's not to love?
For starters, the experience isn't great. The low-cost viewers mean that Cardboard is 100 percent reliant on the connected smartphone for head tracking and motion sensing. The requisite sensors are great for most uses on a phone, but not nearly precise enough to give you a sense of presence in VR.
People love to compare Cardboard to Samsung's Gear VR, another VR standard we'll get to next, but they're not in the same class of product.
"Samsung and Oculus did a lot of work to improve movement tracking and reduce latency for the user," Fireproof Games' Barry Meade told Polygon. "They took the Android rendering loop and pared it right back for speed, as well as adding accurate sensors to the headset. Compared to Gear VR, Google [Cardboard] is more a like a VR viewer — it allows you to peer into VR but not really take part in it."
Meade isn't the only VR developer a bit worried about the weaknesses of Cardboard.
"Maybe you don't care about technical terms like 'low persistence' or 'asynchronous timewarp,'" VR developer E McNeill told Polygon. "Maybe you don't think that a few milliseconds of latency sounds like a big deal. But I'm willing to bet that you don't like getting sick, and these features can determine whether you feel nauseous or not. Personally, I've never found a Cardboard app that felt comfortable for more than a few minutes at a time, so it's hard for me to take it seriously as a platform."
Cardboard is interesting in many ways — the ability to take your own VR pictures and show them off in a free app is particularly neat — and it's never smart to count Google out. But there is a real danger of people using Cardboard, assuming all VR suffers from the same high latency problems, and losing interest in the technology altogether.
If good virtual reality is a roller coaster, Cardboard, in its present state, is a rocking chair. It's not bad, but it's only a hint of what VR is capable of.
On the other hand, if you've tried Cardboard and found it fun, you're in luck: VR only gets better.
Samsung's Gear VR is one of the most impressive and easy-to-use headsets available right now, and you can go ahead and read our review for all the details.
The hardware itself only costs $100 and is available now, but it's only compatible with four of Samsung's current smartphones. If you don't have a Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 edge+, Galaxy S6 or Galaxy S6 Edge, or you're not willing to buy one, you're out of luck. There is no similar product available for iOS devices, either. Gear VR is a product made by Samsung and Oculus to sell Samsung phones.
That being said, it's an amazing virtual reality experience. You can stream Netflix films in a private villa that seems to be in the mountains; you can watch Twitch streams or your own imported videos in a private movie theater. The games range from the forgettable to the wonderful, but there's plenty there already to keep players interested for a very long time, with new releases most weeks.
The Gear VR headset handles the head tracking, which creates a much more comfortable experience compared to Cardboard. The compatible Samsung phones all feature high-quality screens, so it's next to impossible to have a bad experience while playing the Gear VR. The lack of wires and ability to throw the whole setup into a small bag to travel with you is also a huge selling point; this is a fully contained virtual reality solution that is easy to set up and a joy to use.
Outside of the limitation of only being compatible with a few Samsung phones, Gear VR is one of the best ways to get into virtual reality right now. There is only so much developers can do with the graphical limitations of current-generation smartphones, however, and you'll only get a few hours of battery life out of each charge. Overheating can also be a problem.
Despite these few shortcomings, the Gear VR is currently the least expensive but highest-quality way to experience virtual reality. It's also a huge jump up in quality and comfort from Google Cardboard, due to the more precise, external sensors that improve on the smartphone hardware, even though the two technologies look superficially similar. Samsung is currently offering the Gear VR hardware free if you pre-order an S7 or S7 Edge.
The Oculus Rift is where we begin to move into "real" virtual reality on a larger scale. The addition of a high-end gaming PC means that you'll see fuller, more realized experiences here than on the Gear VR, and the hardware will begin shipping in March for the first round of pre-orders. The cost is $599 for the Oculus Rift itself, although the total cost can be $1,500 or above if you need to buy a gaming PC to run everything.
Right now, if you haven't ordered a unit yet, you're going to be waiting until June for pre-orders to be filled. If you're curious, it may be a good idea to get your pre-order in and then wait for reviews; Oculus won't be charging you until the hardware ships. Getting your place in line has no risk, unless you change your mind and then forget to cancel your order.
The Oculus Rift comes with the headset, the depth-tracking device that rests on your desk, a wireless Xbox One controller and the Oculus Remote. The Remote is purely a swiping device like a standard remote, so don't expect any motion tracking to be included in the initial product. The Touch controllers, which are true virtual reality controllers, will be shipping in the second half of the year, with no price set for the upgrade yet.
The Oculus Rift also comes with Eve: Valkyrie and Lucky's Tale, which are two of the most impressive VR games we've played, full stop. Oculus is giving you the good stuff right off the bat, and it's a wise move; the company is ensuring everyone who buys the hardware plays the really good games first. Both games are also made significantly better by virtual reality — they're experiences that couldn't easily be replicated on a standard screen.
The Oculus Rift is also arguably the best-supported virtual reality headset, with over 100 titles, including Minecraft, planned for release in 2016. The $599 is only part of the cost, however, you'll need the following hardware, or better, to run the device:
If your PC is underpowered, you can still run some games, but you may find yourself dealing with frame rates that are low enough to make you ill.
You can also try to track down a Development Kit 2, the last version of the hardware that was widely released for developers and enthusiasts before the retail edition, but Oculus is now longer selling them directly and the price of the hardware on the gray market can be hundreds of dollars over the $350 retail price. Many are selling for higher prices than the retail Oculus Rift itself. It's best just to wait for the real thing.
The Oculus Rift, if you'll forgive the pun, is the hardware that kickstarted the current generation of virtual reality hardware, and Oculus' brain trust of engineers and developers, including the legendary John Carmack and Michael Abrash, can't really be beat. Combine that with the clout and bank account of parent company Facebook, and you have a product that stands at least a fighting chance of breaking through to a mainstream audience.
Pre-orders for the Vive go live Feb. 29, and the hardware with the two motion controllers, two Lighthouse stations and "free" copies of Fantastic Contraption and Job Simulator will cost $799. It's a complete platform, one that offers a much better control selection than the Rift out of the box, but it's also $200 more expensive.
We were recently able to use an updated version of the development kit, and the addition of a camera that allows you to see the world around you in seeming 3D while still wearing the headset is impressive. We also spent a significant amount of time with some of the Vive's upcoming games and were very happy with what we saw. Developers are creating games specifically for movement and motion controls, and it's a huge competitive advantage over the Rift.
Also impressive is the Lighthouse technology, the two sensors that you have to install in the corners of your room to enable the room-scale tracking that helps to make the Vive so magical. Once they're in place, you can walk around an entire room in virtual reality, interacting with the environment using the two wireless motion-tracking controllers that come with the base unit.
The tracking on the headset and the controllers feels close to flawless, which goes a long way to locking you into the virtual world. As a complete solution, the Vive has the Oculus Rift beat; it's a headset, set of controllers and room-scale tracking technology all in one. Tilt Brush, a virtual reality program that allows you to use the controllers to paint and sculpt in 3D space, is perhaps the closest thing VR has to a killer app right now.
Of course, this assumes that you have an entire room to give over to a virtual reality rig, and that you can afford all that hardware to begin with. HTC hasn't revealed the sort of specs that will be required to run the Vive, but expect them to be similar to, if not more demanding than, the Oculus Rift. That is to say, you'll likely need to upgrade your existing PC.
Valve and HTC have also often stressed that the Vive is a "premium" virtual reality experience, and it comes packed with much more hardware than the $599 Rift for $200 more. But Vive is also the VR platform that is coming from a collaboration between HTC and a little PC gaming company called Valve, which happens to own the most popular PC gaming storefront in the world. There is already a SteamVR listing in Steam, and Valve's near-ubiquity in the PC gaming space is a huge advantage.
The Vive will also integrate your existing smartphone to keep your connected to the outside world. "The consumer edition of Vive also integrates phone functionality," the official page states. "Enabling you to stay connected to the real world, without exiting the virtual world, Vive Phone Services demonstrates the ability to combine both realities without losing touch of either. By allowing you to receive and respond to both incoming and missed calls, get text messages and send quick replies and check upcoming calendar invites directly through the headset, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for both consumers and businesses."
That's a lot of marketing speak, but locking yourself away in VR can be challenging if you have family or kids in the house. These services will allow people to reach you in virtual reality without pulling you out of the experience, and the possibilities for productivity software using your phone are also interesting. Valve and HTC are spending a good amount of time and effort on making sure you can move between the real and virtual worlds with minimal friction, and in many cases without removing the headset.
The hardware is scheduled to begin shipping in early April.
And now we come to the last of the big-name VR headsets coming in 2016. PlayStation VR has many advantages over its competition: The PlayStation 4 is much less expensive than a high-end PC, and the Move and even DualShock 4 controllers offer inexpensive motion-sensing controls along with the PlayStation Camera. PlayStation VR developers, much like Gear VR developers, also have the luxury of aiming at a single hardware platform so they can spend more time optimizing each experience.
PlayStation VR is also one of the most comfortable virtual reality headsets we've tried, and is a bit easier to use with glasses than the Vive or the Rift. Plus, Sony is getting aggressive with software support, including an updated version of Rez coming to the platform.
Like all high-quality virtual reality headsets, though, the PlayStation VR is going to be expensive, and it could likely eclipse the PlayStation 4 itself, which costs $349.99. The ability to lock onto the PlayStation 4 as the single hardware spec is very helpful for developers, but it could lead to games and demos that are a bit smaller or lower-fidelity than what we'll see on the Rift and the Vive. Then again, that shouldn't be surprising when you're comparing a years-old console to a gaming PC that costs significantly more.
PlayStation VR is a smart play by Sony for the mainstream, but until we have a set release date or price it's hard to know how it will stack up to the Vive and Rift.
We'll know more about many of these platforms and products in the coming weeks and months, but this should go a long way to making sure you understand the options available to you at the moment. The number of competing platforms can be overwhelming, and VR is just getting started. Good luck!