Virtual reality is upon us, with preorders of the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift already underway, and the HTC Vive opening by the end of February.
The 2016 Game Developers Conference State of the Industry survey found 16-percent of developers are working on VR titles, and another 15-percent will incorporate it in their next project.
Many VR marketplaces are already filled with a variety of apps, games, and virtual experiences comparable to the early Play and App stores.
If you’ve been wanting to experience VR but don’t know enough about the headsets to justify the purchase, here’s a quick breakdown of what each is (and isn’t) capable of out the box.
Oculus Rift ($599 Headset w/screen + Headphones + XBox One Controller)
The Oculus Rift is the most marketed (and thus recognizable) VR headset about to hit the market. Pre-orders for the March shipment quickly filled, and if you pre-order one now, you’ll have to wait till July to receive your headset, making you very late to the VR party.
The Rift is designed to be connected to your PC, and Xbox/Linux/Mac support may come in the distant future. Featuring two 1080×1200 OLED displays with a 90Hz refresh rate, Rift is the standard by which all other consumer VR headsets will be judged.
You’ll have to purchase Oculus Touch motion controllers at a later date (presumably they’ve not yet been perfected), but anyone familiar with basic Xbox gaming will be comfortable traversing VR using these controllers.
Just make sure you grab it before donning the goggles, or you won’t be able to see (you’d be surprised at how often you forget that).
The Rift comes with built-in headphones, positional tracking, and a built-in camera. The Constellation USB tracking system tracks the headset, and a second is included with the controllers to ensure all devices can work simultaneously.
Whether positional tracking will use this camera on the final version is unclear. It’s worth noting, however, that the headset camera allows for environmental mapping, and even an AR experience.
Imagine starting a game in your room, but seeing a glowing portal replace your doorway. When you walk through, you move into a fully-immersive computer-generated world. You’ll see it happen soon enough.
Rift is a high-end gaming headset that’s drawing a lot of developers. According to the Game Developers Conference’s 2016 State of the Industry Survey, 20-percent of developers making VR content will include Rift support. These developers include Insomniac Games, Square Enix, CCP, and Harmonix, some of which were funded by Oculus to make Rift-exclusive games.
Rift content can be purchased through the Oculus Home store, though developers can distribute content however they see fit.
The Oculus SDK has integrated support for Unity 5, Unreal Engine 4, and Cryengine and is an open platform.
HTC Vive Pre (~$1000 Headset w/screen + Motion Controllers + Sensors)
While Samsung partnered with Oculus to create Gear VR using your Galaxy smartphone as a monitor, HTC went a different route, partnering with PC game distributor Valve to create a full-fledged Oculus Rift competitor.
Rumored to have a price point around $1000+, the system will include the SteamVR motion controllers and 2 Lighthouse sensors that are sold separately for the Rift.
The screen and other hardware specs on HTC’s headset are comparable to Rift, but the motion controllers are much sleeker and more responsive/realistic/immersive than the Rift’s (though, as we all know with Xbox/PlayStation controllers are a personal preference).
What sets Vive apart is its partnership with Valve and access to the SteamVR library. The open Steamworks API and OpenVR SDK also allows developers to easily port games and apps from other VR platforms.
With Oculus pouring money into developing what they call “second-party” games (which is third-party developers funded by the first-party Oculus) made exclusively for Rift, you can bet beloved Valve games like Portal and Half-Life will be geared toward attracting the PC master race to SteamVR.
HTC Vive Pre works on PC, but was created to work in tangent with Steam Machines, which run a proprietary Linux-based OS called SteamOS. With that said, Mac and Linux users will likely purchase this over Rift in 2016, as support is more likely to come sooner to the Vive.
Although software and app libraries are likely to be the deciding factor for most gamers, it won’t be long before the homebrew community develops emulators allowing pirates and hackers to access either game library from either headset.
Keep in mind HTC is only the first hardware developer partner to work on SteamVR headsets – Valve is actively seeking more participation, and this may ramp up as VR enters the consumer market in 2016.
Like Oculus, HTC supports Unity and Unreal, along with jMonkeyEngine.
Razer OSVR ($299 Headset w/screen)
VR is quickly becoming an arms race comparable to the console wars, in which headset developers are trying to create proprietary platforms with exclusives that compel consumers to buy their headset (i.e. – I love Half-Life, so I HAVE to get the Vive, etc.).
The problem for software developers is that means everything they create has to be created a dozen times to be compatible with every device.
Seeing this problem unfold, Sensics and Razer teamed up to develop the first OSVR headset. This headset is a platform meant to enable developers to create immersive VR experiences for any platform.
Whereas the SDK and API are open-sourced on the software end (meaning it’s openly available and anyone can develop commercial products without the need for permission), the hardware is closed-source in all but OSVR.
OSVR uses an open licensed ecosystem similar to Android that can be ported to Windows, Android, Linux, and even Apple OS’s.
This isn’t a competitor to Rift/Vive or any of the other headsets, but rather a way to encourage the wider VR industry to develop a deep catalog of immersive digital experiences.
Though OSVR isn’t a consumer headset (it’s actually a development kit), it can be purchased by anyone who wants to use it, and supports Unity 3D, Unreal Engine 4, and HeroEngine. When paired with a Razer Hydra motion controller, it should be able to emulate most consumer VR gaming experiences.
Ubisoft, Nvidia Gameworks VR, Untold Games, and other big-name software developers are already on-board, and the Vuzix headset (see below) is the first consumer headset utilizing this platform.
Hardware developers like Sixense, Bosch, and Virtuix are supporting the OSVR platform as well, and LeapMotion developed a camera that can be fixed to the front of the headset to track hand movements without the need for a controller.
Since most people won’t have a Sixense STEM or Virtuiz Omni in their living room, we’re likely to see OSVR make its way to arcades in the near future.
Sony PlayStation VR (~$400-$600 Headset w/screen)
Sony does everything proprietary, and VR will be no different. While Microsoft teamed with Oculus on the Rift and began developing its Windows 10-powered Hololens for Xbox consoles, Sony developed Project Morpheus (later rebranded to PlayStation VR) to work in conjunction with a PS4.
Providing comparable screen specs to Rift and Vive, PlayStation VR’s main attraction is in the PS4 compatibility. It’ll likely work when plugged into a PC after resolving a few driver issues, but that’s not Sony’s intent.
PSVR’s screen specs are comparable to Vive and Rift with 10-degrees less field of vision (100-degrees vs 110) and, thanks to PS Eye and PS Move accessories, no extra motion-detection accessories are necessary (assuming, of course, you already have those).
Sony has a history of partnering with game developers, and is securing a few exclusive games. The passthru technology on PSVR allows multiplayer gaming between VR and screens, and a lot of games I played at E3 2015 showcased how this dynamic would work.
One player plays a first-person version of the game in VR, often using a much higher-powered boss-level character. Up to three additional players can join in on the TV screen, creating armies, changing landscapes, and creating an Inception-like dynamic.
Sony isn’t rushing Playstation VR to the market – it’ll likely not be released until Q4, but we’ll know more after E3 in June. I’ll do my best to keep you updated.
Auravisor ($450 Headset w/screen + Xbox One Controller)
Every VR headset on this list is nothing more than a face-mounted display, requiring a computer, phone, or console to provide the processing power.
Auravisor is the first face-mounted computer, featuring screen specs comparable to Vive and Rift (including a 100-degree FOV), but with an Android OS running on a 1.8 GHz quad-core Rockchip processor. A MicroSD slot supports expansion up to 64GB of hard drive space to store whatever games and movies you want to play, even in 3D.
On top of being the only self-contained VR headset, it can also connect wirelessly to a PC via bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
This makes it a versatile headset for experiencing the same immersive VR content available on PC to other platforms, while also supporting the growing Milk and Cardboard VR libraries, along with anything else Android.
I’m currently talking to Auravisor co-creator James Talbot about obtaining a headset early, as this is my VR headset of choice (though I’m very unlikely to stick to just one).
Although a small start-up, compatibility with Unreal Engine 4 and the ability to either tether to a PC or use on its own makes Auravisor a unique VR headset in the market.
With HDMI and USB support, what Auravisor is missing is a camera on the front to allow AR capabilities, though this functionality may be made available at a later date.
Royole X ($699 Headset w/screen + Headphones + Storage/Charging Dock)
Running a proprietary OS (Royole OS), the Royole X is a premium VR headset meant for immersive movie experiences. It supports most video, audio, and subtitle formats, and contains 16-64GB of internal storage.
Active noise-cancelling headphones are included in the headset, and it’s billed as a premium smart theater system, due to its ability do display 3300PPI up to 120 frames per second on the AMOLED screen.
Though much of the technical specs are skewed on Royole’s website (nobody uses PPI for a resolution measurement unless they’re trying to confuse the slower kids in the crowd into thinking they’re getting close to 4K, which is bullshit).
The reason Royole is so shady about revealing specs is because they’re fully aware the field of vision was made noticeably smaller (~60-degrees) in order to sharpen the picture.
The headset plugs into a separate box containing the batteries and storage, making it very light.
If you’re a videophile who wants all the latest VR tech, this may be a good buy, but it’s much too expensive of a device to be so shady about hiding real technical specs people need to compare it to other similar headsets at much better price points and with many more accessories.
I have no idea where this thing fits in the market and would avoid it at all costs. If Royole can’t be open and honest about their product specs, who knows what other shady business practices they employ. I see them as the Lehman Brothers of VR, trying to pull a grift for profits.
Vuzix iWear Video Headphones ($499 Headset w/screen + Headphones)
Another headset designed more for an immersive home theater than gaming, the Vuzix iWear features two 720P displays capable of cramming 1 million pixels into each eye (and accepting input up to 1080P).
The headset has a built-in rechargeable 550mAh lithium battery capable of up to 3 hours of usage (though it can also be plugged in for continuous power with any USB cable over 1 amp). With full usage, it dies quickly, so continuous power is a necessity for gaming and it’ll barely last one movie. It has a 55-degree FOV.
iWear doesn’t come with a camera, though there is an optional AR camera add-on that that will make it compatible with future releases that integrate both. The camera is capable of 5MP stills and 1080P video in a 16:9 aspect ratio.
Vuzix iWear is the first VR headset on the consumer market utilizing the OSVR platform and two noise-cancelling microphones allow voice control.
As it’s compatible with OSVR, third-party accessories should be easy enough to find, and this headset can be used interchangeably with Razer’s OSVR.
Avegant Glyph ($699 Headset w/”screen” + Headphones)
Instead of using a screen, the Avegant Glyph basically uses the DLP chips designed by Texas Instruments to project the display into your eye (though they credit their own “Retinal Imaging Technology”). It sounds creepy, but it works well using your brain’s natural vision processing.
Still providing 720P per eye (with a 45-degree FOV), the Glyph isn’t meant to be a fully-immersive VR headset. When wearing it over your eyes, you can clearly see the world above and below you, allowing you to find your keyboard and mouse, remote, etc.
Glyph charges via microUSB and features 9 axis head tracking like most comparable video headset options. It also supports microHDMI and can display SBS 3D content.
The Glyph can be connected to any tablet, smartphone, computer, or console that supports HDMI (Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, and Note 5 aren’t compatible) so, while you don’t need to use your Android or iPhone as a screen, you can use them to store videos/games to be played on it.
Avegant’s Glyph is capable of being plugged in to an Xbox or PS4, but gaming on it wouldn’t be as immersive as the other headsets. Though a good idea for people unwilling to plunge fully into a VR world, I see no use for such a device with so many better options available.
If Avegant ever implements DLP technology into a fully immersive 4k experience, I’ll sign up, but VR gaming is nearly impossible to enjoy with light leaks.
Samsung Gear VR ($99 Headset, no screen)
By the time Google Cardboard was announced, Samsung was already knee-deep in development for its own proprietary VR headset. Designed in conjunction with Oculus specifically for the Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, and Galaxy Note 5, Gear VR is Samsung’s first consumer virtual reality headset and provides a step up from a basic Cardboard setup.
Plugging in to the phone’s USB port, the headset adds more refined positional tracking than any phone includes on its own, adding accelerometers, gyrometers, geomagnetic and proximity sensors. This reduces latency between your head movements and the screen’s reaction, providing a much smoother experience.
Gear VR also includes headset controls not available on Cardboard and offers a 96-degree FOV.
The bright OLED screens and octa-core processors in the Galaxy phones make them ideal to power Android VR games and apps, along with 360-degree pictures and videos.
Gear VR uses the Oculus app to access content through Oculus Home. In addition, Samsung’s Milk VR is aiming to be the YouTube of virtual reality by hosting spherical viewing content.
Although some gaming is possible, it’s more of a casual experience. You won’t find the high-end gaming experiences available on Vive or Rift, nor can you pair it with your PC, but Samsung Galaxy owners will notice the upgrade from Cardboard.
The downside is you’ll be using your phone for a screen, with all the notifications and interruptions that come with it.
Mattel View-Master ($20 Headset, no screen + AR Starter Card)
Gear VR is far from the only VR headset using your mobile phone for a screen, and many of them are virtually indistinguishable. Rather than profile all of them, I’m profiling the ones that stand out for various reasons. The first is the Mattel View-Master, which highlights the toy aspect of mobile VR.
This updated View-Master is a hybrid of the original View-Master and Cardboard – in fact, it was actually built in conjunction with Google on the Cardboard SDK.
It’s also the first glimpse into the blend of VR/AR we’ll soon be seeing, and, as it’s clearly geared toward a younger audience, View-Master is a great sign of the sustainability of the VR industry. It’s compatible with both Android and iOS and comes with an adapter to fit the iPhone lightning connection.
Whereas the older model View-Master simply displayed stereoscopic 3D images on those round cards, this one transforms the cards into an AR menu for selecting which virtual experience you want to be immersed in with a ~85-degree FOV.
Additional experience packs are available (most made in conjunction with National Geographic and other partners) and the physical cards are only necessary to experience the AR menu component. The digital apps can be downloaded individually to view virtual reality environments.
Zeiss VR One ($130 Headset w/tray, no screen)
Carl Zeiss lenses are expertly engineered. If you’re familiar with the name, it could be because Sony has used these lenses in its digital cameras for a long time. The company also makes third-party lenses for DSLR cameras (and more, but that’s the big consumer draw).
The Zeiss VR One supports Unity, and the GX adds Cardboard compatibility. It also supports all the Android and iPhones not supported by Gear VR and offers a 100-degree FOV.
If you’re looking for an experience comparable to Gear VR but don’t own one of Samsung’s latest phones, VR One is the entry-level headset for you. Though, as I stated above, I’d choose Auravisor over any phone-based VR solution.
Unofficial Cardboard (Free-$20 Headset, no screen)
Although anyone can technically make a Google Cardboard headset (including a 100-degree FOV), Unofficial Cardboard gets props for consistent quality and great branding. At CES 2016, these things were handed out like candy, with everyone from Kodak to USC and IEEE giving this swag out like business cards.
If you’re looking for a great way to impress clients at trade shows, a wholesale order from Unofficial Cardboard may be exactly what you need.
Creative Labs Blaster X VR ($49.99 Headset – No Screen)
The Creative Labs Blaster X VR headset on its own isn’t much different than any other. I include them because I respect their Sound Blaster audio solutions, and, if you’re a fan of Twitch but wish you could explore more, the Blasterzone app is a great way to do it.
Just be aware you’ll be watching Play Store games like Clash of Clans, not League of Legends or Modern Warfare.
You can access Blasterzone without the Blaster X VR headset though, so I mostly include this headset to call your attention to that.
What sets Homido apart from the competition is its fully customizable hardware configurations, so you can interchange and replace components to ensure a comfortable fit.
Offering a 100-degree field of vision, Homido Center is the VR marketplace, while Homido VR Player allows viewing of spherical video.
Wearality Sky ($50 Headset, no screen)
I was lucky enough to come across Wearality at the 2015 CTIA Super Mobility Week in Las Vegas. At first I dismissed it as just another Cardboard clone, but I stopped to talk to the rep anyway, demoing a virtual roller coaster on the device.
The only real draw to the Wearality Sky is the lenses, which offer a 150-degree field of view. Wearality is the culmination of five years of development by aerospace and defense optics engineers at Lockheed Martin, as clearly the rest was just thrown together without any consumer market research.
Online reviewers lament the blurriness around the edges, but it’s not noticeable when fully darkened, so this headset is a good investment simply to harvest the lenses (unless you’re really itching for a Cardboard replacements you can fit in your pocket, in which case, you’ll need some foam or fabric to block out all the light.
FOVE VR (~$399 Headset w/screen)
FOVE includes all the standard features of the high-end VR gaming headsets like Vive and Rift, also including accurate eye-tracking capability. This means it can actually tell what you’re looking at and adjust the focus accordingly.
This enables a huge visual difference and immerses you that extra degree into the digital world.
Though it has the standard 100-degree FOV, I’m aching to find out if I can find a way to install the Wearality lenses into the FOVE VR headset for the most premium possible view (assuming, of course, developers incorporate the technology into existing games or the company finds a way to integrate it through a driver).
FOVE supports the Unity and Unreal Engines, along with CryEngine and support for Mac and Linux. Expected to be released May 2016, FOVE VR is an interesting VR upgrade to keep an eye on as the most advanced technology doesn’t always end up being the winner.
Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work has appeared in High Times, Hardcore Droid, Huffington Post, The Street, Lifehack, and Quickbooks Small Business Resource.