Let the countdown begin: We are roughly T-minus one month from virtual reality.
It’s hard to believe that after three years of developer kits and prototypes and trade shows and me-too headsets and so many demos that we’re finally on the cusp of a consumer release. I’m excited. I hope—sincerely—that you’re excited. Or at least willing to give it a shot.
But it’s been one long and convoluted ride, and if you’ve skipped most of the news for the last three years you might be wondering “What the hell is going on in virtual reality these days?” That’s why we wrote a virtual reality for beginners primer a few months back and why, now, we’re going to go over all the hardware barreling down the pipeline—who’s involved, what it’ll look like, why it stands out, when it’ll release, and what you’ll need in order to use it.
Ready? Then let’s start with the one that kicked this all off, the Oculus Rift.
For many, Oculus is the de facto virtual reality company. And for good reason! Oculus was the first to resurrect the idea of consumer VR in a big way.
They’ve since been joined by an ever-growing number of competitors, but the Rift is still one of the main heavyweights. It’s got the most name recognition, the most buzz, the most available software, and its executives (especially co-founder Palmer Luckey) are faces for the entire movement. Oh, it’s also backed by Facebook’s massive war chest, thanks to a 2014 acquisition.
The Rift is also the one you’d be most likely to own already. Two development kits (nicknamed DK1 and DK2) have been sold by Oculus, though neither is fully supported as “consumer-ready.”
The consumer version of the Oculus Rift was unveiled earlier this year and hits most of the baselines the company’s been aiming for since its initial Kickstarter: a low-persistence OLED screen with a total resolution of 2160×1200 and a 90Hz refresh rate, a field of view of 110 degrees, internal rotation-tracking, and a position-tracking camera that sits on your desk. It also has optional headphones bolted on, enabling positional audio for all users without needing a separate audio solution.
By default, the Rift ships with an Xbox One controller. This enables developers to aim for a standard. Or, as Oculus’s Nate Mitchell put it, “Everyone has an Xbox controller. There’s zero input fragmentation there. That’s why we bundled the Xbox controller.”
However, consumers can opt to purchase Oculus Touch—two position-tracked controllers (and a second sensor) that effectively let you use your hands in virtual reality, thanks to multiple palm-grip buttons.
Oculus used to be adamant that VR was a sitting-down experience, but in the last year has relaxed that definition somewhat. Mitchell now says “My personal opinion: Most people are going to want to play VR games for long periods of time, and they’re going to want to chill out and sit down. There are going to be a set of awesome standing experiences that’ll be fun. People are going to want to play those too, I’m sure.”
”Okay, cool. When can I buy it, and for how much?” We don’t know. Not really. Oculus has only given a launch window—the first quarter of 2016. And that’s just for the headset. The Oculus Touch controllers are set for an even more nebulous “first half of 2016.”
As for price, Oculus has previously said it wants to stay somewhere in the $350 to $500 range for the headset. The goal is to sell it as cheaply as component costs and Facebook’s endless dollars can afford in order to spur adoption. The controllers are still a mystery, though if we go by standard Xbox controller pricing I’d guess it tacks on at least $150.
Then there’s the usurper, the HTC Vive, a.k.a. SteamVR (pictured in use above). Yes, despite being built by HTC, the Vive is more commonly associated with Half-Life/Portal/Team Fortress 2/Steam developer Valve. And it’s a bit of a convoluted story.
At one point, Valve and Oculus were actually working together. Valve had been researching VR internally, and it’d built a legendary VR room at its studio in Bellevue, WA. Developers had tried it out and said it was a huge step above what Oculus was showing at the time.
But (supposedly) having no interest in creating its own VR headset, Valve and Oculus came to an agreement whereby Valve supplied Oculus with R&D—an agreement that became less and less important as more of Valve’s VR team left for Oculus. Then Facebook bought Oculus and the whole “sharing R&D” agreement seemed jeopardized.
I know nothing of the internal machinations of Valve, which is notoriously inscrutable. What I can say is that apparently “We’re not making a VR headset” turned into “We are making a VR headset.” Valve teamed up with HTC, lending its software expertise to the hardware company to create the Vive.
Despite pretty much identical specs (low-persistence OLED with a total resolution of 2160×1200 and a 90Hz refresh rate, a field of view of 110 degrees, internal rotation-tracking) the Vive is far more than another me-too, Rift-alike headset. It’s a competing philosophy of VR. Remember how Nate Mitchell said Oculus believes VR is mostly a sitting-down experience? Well the Vive is the response: A virtual reality platform centered around standing.
Not just standing but jumping, kneeling, and even walking around. The Vive is actually five different pieces—the headset, two position-tracked controllers, and two “Lighthouse” base stations mounted either on the walls or on tall furniture.
It’s a bigger investment, but the result is a 15-foot by 15-foot VR space you can walk around in. There’s still a cable attaching the headset to your computer, but you’re otherwise free to explore. A grid will show up in the game when you’ve come too close to a wall, so you won’t accidentally walk into the side of your living room.
The Vive is the best VR technology coming to market, and the experiences I’ve had with it are amazing. The main questions are: 1) How much software will be available at launch? 2) Will people have enough space to dedicate to the Vive? And, of course…
”Okay, cool. When can I buy it, and for how much?” The first answer is easy, actually. The Vive releases in limited numbers in November—yes, next month. Thus it’ll beat Oculus to market.
But price? No idea. Extrapolating from the Rift’s cost, adding two controllers and two base stations, I’d estimate it’ll cost at least $500—at least—but there hasn’t been any official word yet. Regardless, the Vive will undoubtedly cost more than the Rift at launch. And it takes up more space. And we’ve seen barely any games or third-party software. And we don’t know what the store will look like. And and and and…
My point is, there are a ton of unknowns surrounding the Vive considering it’s supposed to launch next month—which might explain why HTC recently amended the initial window to say November will see the Vive launch “in limited quantities.” Mass quantities of the Vive won’t be available until the first quarter of next year
As for recommended gaming PC specs, there’s nothing official from Valve or HTC yet. We can infer from the Rift that you’ll probably need at least a GTX 970 or Radeon R9 290 graphics card, 8GB of RAM, and an Intel i5-4590 or greater.
Next page: Samsung Gear VR.
Samsung Gear VR
There’s a third vision of virtual reality coming to market—mobile virtual reality. Like, with a phone.
The lo-fi version of this is Google Cardboard, but that’s more of a fancy View-Master than a full-fledged VR platform. The only high-end mobile VR platform at the moment is Samsung’s Gear VR.
Gear VR’s a bit weird in that it’s not one set standard, like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. The actual Gear VR is just a fancy piece of molded plastic with some lenses, a high-end gyroscope for rotation-tracking, embedded controls, and a volume rocker. The core of the experience is your phone, which means there are a range of Gear VR-compatible products.
It’s a narrow range, though. The first two Gear VR iterations were compatible with exactly one phone each—first the Note 4, then the Galaxy S6. The consumer-oriented Gear VR is a bit broader, but not by much. You can use the upcoming Gear VR with the entire lineup of Samsung’s 2015 flagship phones. That’s PR-speak for the Note 5, S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Edge+. Four phones.
Those phones slot into Gear VR and act as the processing power, storage, screen, and audio output. The benefit is there’s no “tether”—no cable hooked from the headset to a computer. All of the software, every game or app, runs off the phone. This allows for what Oculus’s John Carmack terms “swivel-chair VR,” meaning you can spin in circles as long as you want without worrying about getting tangled.
The drawback? Less power—both in terms of performance and battery. A fully-rigged gaming PC will run circles around the Gear VR’s output, meaning you can run more photorealistic or intensive games. And your Oculus Rift will never run out of battery in the middle of playing, because it doesn’t need a battery. Your phone’s not so lucky.
Samsung’s also had trouble courting developers onto its platform. Unlike the Rift, which has hundreds of demos and experiences you can try straight out the box, Gear VR is still struggling to give you a reason why you should buy it.
”Okay, so assuming I do want one, when can I buy it? And for how much?” If you already own one of Samsung’s flagship 2015 phones, the company’s making it easy to buy Gear VR. The headset ships in November at the low, low cost of $100, making it by far the cheapest virtual reality investment you could make.
That’s assuming you own one of Samsung’s phones though—presumably for day-to-day cell phone use. If you don’t, the price immediately jumps to $700 or more, because you’ll need to buy one of the company’s high-end phones off contract and buy Gear VR. That’s still cheaper than rigging a gaming PC, but it’s not quite the bargain Samsung makes it out to be with that $100 price tag.
Oh, and one more thing: There’s no guarantee that Samsung’s flagship phones next year will work with the 2015 Gear VR. Or that apps designed for 2016’s phones will work on 2015 hardware. Phone technology iterates rapidly, as does VR.
Next page: Starbreeze’s StarVR
Now we come to the off-brand VR headsets. I’m not going to cover every single VR headset in this section because, frankly, there are too damn many. When this whole shebang started it was just Oculus in the ring. Now we’ve got a full-fledged battle royale, with dozens of me-too contenders.
What makes StarVR unique is a focus on field of view. Both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive hit a “good enough” FOV of 110 degrees, while Gear VR tops out at 96 degrees. By contrast, the human eye has a 180 degree field of view when facing forward, and accounting for eye rotation that number jumps to as high as 270 degrees.
Using the Rift or Vive is a bit like looking through a periscope, in that your vision is limited to a swathe immediately in front. This isn’t a huge deal, as that’s typically the most important part of your vision. But it’s noticeable!
StarVR boasts a whopping 210 degree field-of-view—almost twice the Rift or Vive—and a resolution of 5120×1440. The result is that, when facing forward, you’re completely immersed in the scene. At E3 I went hands-on with a Walking Dead-styled demo Overkill built, which put me in a wheelchair as someone pushed me through an abandoned, zombie-filled warehouse. Widening the FOV makes a noticeable difference.
But there are some issues. Pushing that many pixels requires a lot of power—far more than the GTX 970 recommended by Oculus. We’ve barely started seeing single graphics cards that can effectively hit 4K resolution while gaming, let alone 5K resolution. You’d need one hell of a rig to use StarVR.
It’s also bulky, heavy, and hot. The heat the huge displays generate is transferred straight into your head, which also can cause everything to fog up. It’s a fantastic idea, but StarVR needs a lot of refinement before it could hit market.
”So…when and where can I buy one?” You can’t. StarVR is only a concept right now—similar to the Rift the past three years. You might catch it at tradeshows, so there’s an opportunity for you to try out the hardware. But I’d say it’s at least a year, maybe two, before StarVR hits market. If ever.
Next page: Razer’s OSVR.
I’d be remiss not to mention Razer’s OSVR for two reasons. 1) Because it’s Razer, a large and well-established company in gaming. 2) Because of what OSVR stands for: Open-Source Virtual Reality.
As Razer puts it:
“[OSVR] is an ecosystem designed from the ground up to set an open standard for Virtual Reality input devices, games and output with the sole goal of providing the best possible game experience in the Virtual Reality space. Supported by Industry Leaders and focused on gaming, the OSVR framework rallies gamers worldwide together to push the boundaries of VR-Gaming.”
It’s an admirable goal, given how much the scene has fragmented in the past year. I keep saying “When this started, Oculus was the only one around,” but that’s a bit of an understatement. Last year, i.e. December of 2014, Oculus was still the only serious virtual reality contender—Gear VR was a bit of a we’ll-see-what-happens experiment, and everything else (HTC Vive, OSVR, StarVR) was still unannounced.
That sort of proliferation could actually do more harm than good in a technology as untested and unproven as VR. After all, it’s what leads to us writing lengthy exposes like this one about the state of the technology. And if VR does take off, expect the problem to get even worse as every company that’s ever soldered two wires together decides to make its own headset.
Enter Razer, uncharacteristically willing to cooperate with other companies and hopefully mitigate fragmentation. And also sell some VR headsets, while it’s at it.
The Razer headset is a bit lower-end than the consumer Rift or Vive, more on a par with the Rift developer kits. Razer makes a $200 headset that apes the DK1, with a 1920×1080 screen at 60Hz and a 100-degree field of view. For an extra $100 (or $300 total) you get a headset and included position-tracking camera, a la the DK2.
There are a few extra perks. Because OSVR is more a network of companies and not just Razer, the plan over time is to integrate other technology into the headset—for instance, Leap Motion’s hand-tracking. Merging virtual reality with Kinect-style tracking could be a powerful mix in the right hands, indeed.
”So, can I get one?” And this is probably the most appealing part of OSVR: You can buy it right now. You can head to Razer’s site and get one and start playing with VR.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you should. While both the DK1 and DK2 were impressive at the time, neither met the standards Oculus considers a baseline for comfortable virtual reality—meaning you’re more likely to get nauseous using OSVR.
Also, HTC and Oculus seem determined to forge ahead on VR themselves, rather than working with Razer to determine standards. You might buy OSVR and find few developers using it.
In fact, probably the best bit about OSVR is the whole “open-source” thing. You can actually build your own OSVR headset if you’d like, provided you have access to a bunch of specialized fabrication machinery. But unless you’re a hardcore VR aficionado, you’re probably better off with the more consumer-friendly Vive, Rift, or Gear VR.
It’s exciting times for virtual reality. Or scary times. Within the next year, we’ll most likely have an answer to the question “Will virtual reality catch on?” And while I hope the answer is yes, the opposite scenario is just as likely.
Stay tuned—we’ll be rolling out formal reviews and more hands-on impressions as the hardware becomes available, and updating this article as necessary. Feel like we missed something important? Or made a mistake? Be sure to get in touch with me through Twitter and let me know!
Correction: This article originally stated that Gear VR used your phone’s internal gyroscope. In fact, it has its own higher-end gyroscope built in. The article has been updated to reflect this.
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Computers and Peripherals
Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.
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