Last updated: Friday, January 25, 2019
The technology all geeks have been dreaming of is here: the virtual reality headset.
From the moment that Neo swallowed the red pill in The Matrix, sci-fi enthusiasts, techies, and programmers all began pondering a new meaning of Virtual Reality. Yet when The Matrix came out in 1999, VR was just something you saw in movies or read about in tech magazines and Neal Stephenson novels. Almost twenty years later, we are still a long way from plugging computers into our central nervous systems, but true VR technology isn’t just vaporware anymore.
The Best VR Headsets of 2019
From Google’s Cardboard Viewer to the slick-looking HTC Vive, there are easily a dozen products on shelves currently. In today’s market, however, what makes a VR headset any good or not boils down to how much you are ready to spend.
1. Oculus Rift
Obviously, the best VR headsets and best VR games are those that don’t run off your phone, but off a PC. You need powerful hardware for vivid VR experiences.
Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift ($500) is an example of top-shelf consumer level Virtual Reality. The Rift sports twin OLED displays, with 1080 x 1200 each and a 90Hz refresh rate. That’s 233 million pixels per second. A big step up from the untethered, phone-powered Gear VR and Daydream, they offer users some of the best virtual reality games available.
The Oculus Rift lacks a camera, but you can buy additional sensors that keep you from standing still the entire time. When it comes to software most critics agree Oculus has its competitor the Vive beat. Games like the addictive Robo Recall and the ever-popular Minecraft, give it the edge when it comes to selection, but with entire libraries still in the works it’s only a matter of time.
Oculus Rift Summary:
- Lighter and easier to wear for long periods of time
- Built in audio works well
- Touch controllers work well
- Great platform exclusives; games and apps are purchased through the Oculus Store
2. HTC Vive
Same as its direct competitor the Rift, HTC’s Vive has two gorgeous OLED displays (1080 x 1200 each). Coupled with a 90Hz refresh rate as well, they’ve done their best to provide a clear and fluid visual experience.
As far as features go, the Vive includes sensors that allow you to use the room around you in the virtual world (instead of being anchored to the couch), and a front-facing camera that acts as an early warning system should you be near any adjacent walls or furniture.
HTC Vive Summary:
- Offers the best room scale experience
- Extremely accurate tracking technology
- Knuckle controllers coming soon
- Games and apps are purchased through Steam
Tactical Discussion: HTC Vive vs. the Oculus Rift
So what are you really getting for your money?
PC virtual reality is the highest you can go if you’re looking for the best VR experience that money can buy. Although more are on the way, there are currently only two real options: the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.
The headsets are in many ways similar, but it’s in the small details that each finds its uniqueness. For instance, Oculus compromises on style and control features for a lighter and more comfortable headset, while HTC chooses a denser approach, with a front-facing camera, a power-off button and a knob for lens adjustment.
Besides the obvious difference in design, the Vive and the Rift vary significantly in what you get out of the box. Albeit more expensive, the HTC Vive VR headset offers a complete package, giving you everything you need to control and move around in both real and virtual space.
HTC accomplishes this by bundling the Vive with two “Lighthouse” base stations, which when mounted at diagonal ends of a room, use lasers to track the headset’s movement. You also get two wand-like controllers, which allow for precise movements in both games and 3D painting simulators.
The ability to walk adds great depth to the feeling of being in a virtual world, but you’ll need to be careful not to trip over the maze of cables crisscrossing your room.
In comparison, the Rift comes with nothing more than one tracking camera and an Xbox One controller. Everything else, including touch controllers, motion trackers, and room-scale sensors, is sold separately. The total price of a full Rift setup, therefore, significantly tips that of the Vive.
On the bright side, however, the touch controllers feel much more natural in the hands than the Vive wands. The Rift also boasts a larger library of games, but given Valve’s reputation as a game developer, more games will certainly be available for the Vive soon. Perhaps now would be a good time for the company to unveil the much-awaited Half-Life 3.
Last, but not least is the new kid on the block — Sony’s new Playstation VR. Built less like a pair of front-heavy goggles and more like a lightweight crown straight out of Star Trek, the PS VR might be the best VR gaming system you can buy. While the specs are slightly lower than the Vive and the Oculus, PS VR’s user-friendly setup, its operating system, and its lower price are major selling points. The device has already blown Sony’s sales predictions out of the water by shipping one million units.
Instead of twin OLED screens, the Playstation VR splits an image on one 960×1080 screen. However, its refresh rate that keeps games running smoothly and keeps gamers from getting motion sickness. Sony’s VR headset offers a whopping 120Hz as opposed to the competition’s 90Hz.
Sony and the PlayStation family have also been around for decades now, so when it comes to software they appear to be well out in front of the competition. For those brave souls willing to enter the world of 360-degree horror there’s the PS VR exclusive Resident Evil 7. The game is a return to form for the franchise and one of the best-reviewed horror games in years. There is something terrifyingly tempting about crawling through a southern gothic mansion in virtual reality, waiting for psychotic killers or undead monsters to jump out at you from a nearby closet.
For those looking for a bit of the old shoot-em-up, there is the new PS VR Aim, a gun-shaped controller that opens up First Person Shooters in a completely new way, with uncanny precision. Along with Sony’s newest sci-fi shooter Farpoint, the Aim lets players fight their way across virtual alien landscapes, as they’ve never done before. Farpoint is also one of the only VR shooters that actually allow players to control the movement of the character. When giant alien spiders start lobbing green gobs of poison, players physically duck into cover with the headset and Aim, a mechanic that can ends up giving a good work out.
Tactical Discussion: PC vs. Console VR: What to Buy
As mentioned above, the PlayStation VR is the least inexpensive tethered VR headset. Even better is, unlike the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift which demand a hefty PC investment, you’ll only need a PS4 console to run games in virtual reality. While not anywhere near the visual quality you get with PCs, PS VR is remarkably reliable. And, thanks to Sony’s backing, you’ll also get an impressive selection of games.
The real downside to opting for the PlayStation VR is that you’ll be limited only to games. Sure, gaming is the most popular virtual reality application, but with a PC, you get the ability to explore other purposes, such as modeling animations and manipulating 3D images.
Nevertheless, if you’re planning to use VR exclusively for games, the PlayStation VR undoubtedly offers the best value.
4. Google Cardboard and Google Daydream
If you want to experiment with VR these entry-level headsets like the Google Cardboard (~$15) and Daydream (~$79) are great options. These untethered headsets get their power from your smartphone, but only the Daydream comes with adjustable straps and a Bluetooth remote.
Google’s VR headsets are so far pretty basic, and the Cardboard is only meant for those who want to dip their toes in the VR pool.
The Daydream on the other hand has some genuinely fun apps and games that will have you waving around and dodging digital objects in no time. Games like VR Karts Sprint (a Mario Kart clone) and The Turning Forest offer low-priced virtual gaming experiences, while apps like YouTube VR and Google Arts & Culture bring your favorite videos, movies, and even works of art to you in ways you’ve never seen before.
Technically, you can use your iPhone in both of Google’s units; however, the majority of apps are only available on Android. The Daydream has specific requirements for the immersion to run smoothly, and right now Google only recommends using their new Pixel, Motorola’s Moto Z, Huawei’s Mate 9 Pro, and the Axon 7 from ZTE. However, Samsung’s Galaxy S8, S8+, as well as Asus’ ZenFone AR are next in line.
The next tier up is the brand new version of Samsung’s Gear VR (~$90). The Gear VR only works with Samsung phones, but the good news is that most of the time they’re bundled together. For instance, anyone picking up a new Galaxy S8 will get a free Gear VR headset.
Lighter and more comfortable than the Daydream and most other headsets, the Gear VR is the number one choice for entry-level VR. Compared to Google’s headsets, it has a much larger library of software, and big names like Minecraft, Eve: Gunjack, and Land’s End are one of its biggest draws.
Award for the Best VR Experience So Far: HTC Vive
Virtual reality has made admirable strides in the recent past, but it’s still in its early stages. Choosing which is better between the Vive and the Rift is therefore quite the ambiguous endeavor. There aren’t enough compelling games available for either platform and when the big titles come, they’ll likely all work on both.
Moreover, HTC has recently unveiled a new headset mechanism, which looks to make the Vive much more comfortable than it is now especially when coupled with a high quality gaming chair. And, as for Oculus, it’s expected that the hardware that comes with the Rift will match that of the Vive in the coming months.
For now, it’s the HTC Vive that offers the best value for the money and is the recommended option for anyone interested in a complete experience, more so if they’re desperate for VR.
If you can, however, wait a while and watch for more developments. There’s no other realistic competitor to HTC and Oculus, but VR projects from Starbreeze, Razer, and Microsoft could stir things up soon. Microsoft, for instance, says it’s upcoming headsets will start at $299, which means we could be in line for a new best value VR headset.
General Thoughts on the Best VR Experience
It’s taken a long while, but virtual reality technology has finally taken off. Last year, in particular, saw an explosion of VR gear. Oculus had the Rift, the welcome partnership between HTC and Valve gave us the Vive, Sony offered the excellent PlayStation VR for its PS4 gaming consoles, Samsung improved the Gear VR, and Google’s affordable Daydream View made virtual reality accessible to more Android phones than any other platform.
Although we still have a long way to go, the market now has something for everyone; from the casual smartphone user to the fun-loving console gamer, and ultimately to the invested PC gaming enthusiast. However, each has its strengths and weaknesses, all which a serious shopper should be made aware.
Regardless of your pick, having the best VR around comes at a price. If you already own a Playstation 4 (or the new Playstation Pro), you can pick up the PS VR for only $400, but the required peripherals start to add up quickly. On the other hand, the Rift and Vive both require robust gaming PCs to run smoothly, which can run anywhere from $600-$2,000. Despite also needing Sony’s Playstation Camera and its Move controllers, the PS VR is much less of a commitment when it comes to sunk cost, especially if you’re one of the 60 million people that already own a PS4.
History of Virtual Reality
Any idiot could walk into a room, utter the letters ‘v’ and ‘r’, and VC’s would hurl bricks of cash at them – Erlich Bachman, HBO’s Silicon Valley
Today, virtual reality is becoming big business.
In fact, most of today’s tech companies are banking that Virtual Reality is the future of entertainment… Just ask Palmer Luckey, one of the world’s richest 25 year-olds.
Palmer Luckey started out a modern whiz kid from Southern California, into video games and sci-fi movies. Gifted with a talent for tech, he began fixing iPhones for extra cash in his spare time. Today, he is one of the hottest names in VR.
Luckey attended California State, Long Beach, where he worked as a part-time engineer at the Institute for Creative Technologies. Frustrated with the low quality of current VR interfaces, his knowledge of smartphones gave him a breakthrough idea. He went to work in his mom’s garage and not only invented a new kind of Virtual Reality Headset, but literally kick-started an entire new generation of VR.
He called his prototype goggles the Oculus, and eventually sold them to Facebook for over $2 billion dollars. That’s just the beginning. Fortune magazine predicts that within 4 years VR will be a $150 billion industry. In fact, just last year Facebook had over 400 people working on Virtual Reality alone. The social media monster is only 1 of the 230 companies that were developing VR tech or VR gaming systems as of 2016. Nearly all of the big tech giants from Sony to HTC to Apple have thrown their weight in the virtual ring.
Virtual Reality might have started out as a techie’s fantasy, but today a quick Google search brings up page after page of articles with headlines such as “15 Best VR Apps” or “10 Best Phone VR Headsets.” When Palmer Luckey opened the floodgates, every big name in Silicon Valley hopped on the bandwagon.
Mobile vs. Tethered: Which is Which?
Modern VR headsets typically fit under one of two categories: mobile or tethered. Going the mobile way will get you a shell with a couple of lenses, into which you’ll slot in your smartphone. The lenses separate the image on the screen into two, turning the phone into a VR device.
Mobile headsets are relatively inexpensive because your smartphone does all the processing. You, therefore, won’t need to connect any wires to the headset. However, phones aren’t particularly designed for VR, and even the latest of the bunch are notably underpowered compared to PC or console VR.
Tethered headsets, on the other hand, are physically connected to PCs or gaming consoles. The cables make them unwieldy, but the use of powerful hardware, a dedicated display in the headset instead of your phone, motion sensors and cameras, drastically improve the overall experience.
The trade-off is, of course, the price. The cheapest option is the PS VR at $400, which you’ll have to pair with accessories ranging from $60 to $160 to make it work. Both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift will set you back an excess of $600, and that’s excluding the powerful gaming PC you’ll need to render VR.
With that in mind, anyone looking for a laid-back experience will be just fine with mobile headsets like the Daydream or the Gear VR. However, if what you want is unparalleled immersion through high resolutions and above-average refresh rates, along with room-scale tracking and motion controllers, tethered headsets are better worth your money.
What is Augmented Reality?
Unlike the ill-fated 3D trend that hit store shelves a few years ago, the majority of VR Headsets out there seem to be more than just gimmicks. That being said, VR tech is still a long way from capturing the wide audience that companies like Google, Facebook, and Sony are hoping. Despite the advances in VR tech, most consumers will shy away from having to strap large wired goggles to their faces, not to mention the money they will have to shell out just to bring it home.
That is why companies like Microsoft and the amazing Magic Leap are relying on VR’s cousin, AR. Augmented Reality (or Mixed Reality) is the incorporation of the real world with virtual objects to produce a new environment where physical and digital objects can co-exist and even interact with each other in real time. Instead of being closed off in a digital space like a VR headset with controllers, Mixed Reality superimposes the virtual world on top of the world around you.
Remember last summer when everyone under 40 was running around town playing Pokemon Go? The game was really just a map of the world around you that would beep when its GPS picked up a nearby Pokemon. That’s when the camera would pop up and show you a small creature hovering in the air nearby. All players had to do was flick a digital ball at it in order to capture them, and then go about their business.
Pokemon Go was a massive hit, and the practical applications of such a simple game sent a shockwave through the software community. Other companies are fighting for the chance to cash in on the experience that Pokemon Go offered. So much so, that Apple just announced their next mobile operating system will include a developer’s kit for Augmented Reality apps and games due to release this fall on iOS 11. They also showcased a new Augmented Reality game from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s new studio, Wingnut AR, which will release later this year.
Bill Gates’ Windows has turned Microsoft into one of the largest corporations on the planet. If you sit and think about how many computers are running some version of Windows, the numbers are astounding, something like 1.25 billion PCs. That’s why it made a lot of sense when Microsoft purchased Minecraft for a whopping 2.5 billion dollars. After all, the latest release of the uber-popular game includes premium content microtransactions with a new Minecraft currency.
Now Microsoft wants to bring Minecraft into your living room in a completely new way thanks to Augmented Reality.
I’m a traditionalist. I grew up on Star Trek the Next Generation, so when I think of Virtual Reality, I think of a Holodeck where I don’t have to put anything on my head… and while the technology is still a long way out, Microsoft’s Hololens looks as if it’s a step in the right direction.
The Hololens (and its AR counterparts) isn’t just another VR headset for pc gaming, it’s an entirely new way of seeing and interacting with the world around a user. Looking something like a metal headband with a pair of glasses hanging from one side, the Hololens is one of the first Augmented Reality headsets shipped to developers and businesses.
Unlike a traditional VR headset with controllers, Hololens projects its digital reality on top of the world you can see through its lenses. So when a giant flying dragon swoops in from the ceiling and sets your couch on fire, you don’t have to run and grab a fire extinguisher.
Although the hardware is still in its initial phases, products like Hololens and Magic Leap have their sights set on eventually replacing your smartphone. AR headsets, and eventually even smartlenses, will bring a whole other level of interaction with the world around you… Instead of closing you off like VR headsets.
What’s Next for VR?
Somewhere in a lab in South Korea, Samsung is working on bringing the best of both worlds to consumers. A combination of VR Headsets and AR lenses, Samsung just patented a wearable smartlense that will eventually put the power of VR in your eyes. Like Google’s patented contacts that detect blood sugar levels in a wearer’s tear fluids, Samsung is actively pursuing virtual reality that ditches the headgear.
Imagine wearing a contact lens powered by blinking and the kinetic movement of the eye, with a built-in mini camera and graphical display. You could open emails in thin air, watch movies or take video calls on invisible screens, and immerse yourself in video games like never before. All without the need for cables or heavy headsets.
Smartlenses might still be in the concept phase, but one thing is for sure, nearly every big name in the tech industry is looking to inch us closer to some kind of virtual world. After all, it opens up an entire new virtual world of products for them to sell, products they can produce with a few lines of code.
Virtual reality works by creating presence and experience, or hardware and software. First by manipulating the senses, VR gives a user presence by tricking the body into feeling or believing as though it is somewhere else. VR headsets hijack the visual and auditory cortex, tricking the users’ brain into believing whatever it tells it. VR presence is more than an illusion of light and sound, but a combined experience more like a gut feeling.
The second part, and really the holy grail of VR these days, is experience. Experience is what happens after presence, after the novelty of being in a virtual reality wears off. VR headsets will get you there, but it’s the software counts… Once the technology advances and the hardware is more or less the same, users will be clamoring for experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Feel like stepping off the Eagle lander and walking on the moon? Or maybe you’d like to explore the depths of the Mariana Trench or battle aliens in some far-off galaxy? These are the experiences that will eventually bring virtual reality home to more than just a niche market.
Google and Samsung can give you a taste with their VR headsets for iPhone or Android, they can show you pictures in 360 degrees and movies on giant virtual screens, but only the best VR headsets for PC and consoles are going to keep you coming back for more. It’s the difference between a gimmick and a reality, between a presence and an experience.
Here is a selection of links we recommend for further VR reading: