If you’re interested in getting a VR system, this guide can help simplify the alternatives for you.
These are the primary VR systems that are out there:
– Oculus Rift
– HTC Vive
– Playstation VR
– Google Cardboard
– Samsung Gear VR
– Google Daydream
Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are desktop VR systems (they need a PC or console) to use. Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard and Google Daydream are standalone mobile VR systems that don’t need a PC or console.
I’ll discuss these one by one.
10/11/16 UPDATE – updated discussion of Oculus Rift based on information from Oculus Connect 3; added new info re Google Cardboard.
Oculus Rift – an evolution
TL; DR: like many of the games you already play, but in VR.
Summary: Oculus Rift is the system that brought VR to mainstream awareness, thanks to its inventor Palmer Luckey. It was one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history, raising $2.5 million. Later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg got to demo the Oculus Rift and was so impressed that Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion. The Rift was also the first desktop VR system to hit the market. It suffered from shipment delays, but those have been resolved since August 2016.
As a system, Oculus Rift seems more polished than its rival the HTC Vive. It is more comfortable, and fits better (unless you wear glasses, in which case Vive will fit you better). This polish is also reflected in its software, with a walled garden approach similar to Apple, which increases the average quality of the games and apps on its store, while having less variety.
However, the biggest differentiator between the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive is that the Rift was designed for seated or standing VR experiences, while the Vive was designed for room-scale VR (where you walk around a small area). Oculus chose this approach because they believe it is more practical.
The Rift is technically capable of room-scale VR as well, but it wasn’t designed for it. For example, you’ll need two more sensors for a total of three sensors (though the optional Oculus Touch includes one additional sensor). The cables for the sensors need to be connected to a computer, so you’ll need a very long USB cable from the far end of the play area to your PC. The Rift recently added a virtual fence like that of the HTC Vive, but doesn’t have a built-in camera to detect objects. Most importantly, Oculus asked developers for the Rift to design their games and experiences for 270-degree standing or seated experiences. So, while the Rift can be made capable of room-scale, you probably won’t be playing room-scale with it.
The other difference is the controller. Rift games currently use a gamepad or the included remote control but beginning December 6, there will be games that use the optional Oculus Touch motion controller ($199). The Oculus Touch is more advanced than the HTC Vive in that the Touch has touch-sensitive buttons, which allow the Rift to infer your finger positions. For example, if your thumb is not resting on any of the buttons, while your index finger is resting on the trigger, then the Rift infers that you are making a thumbs-up sign. Those who’ve tried Touch though say it feels much more natural than the motion controllers of the Vive, but the Vive’s controller has more accurate tracking.
Hype: has the support and resources of Facebook; on the average, apps are more polished (they feel more complete, and with better-looking graphics) than apps for the HTC Vive; Oculus Touch has the most natural feel among motion controllers for any system.
Gotchas: while the Rift can be made capable of room-scale, its games are designed for seated / standing VR experiences.
Controller: The Oculus Rift includes an Xbox One controller and a small Oculus Remote control (without motion sensor). However, you can now preorder Oculus Touch motion controllers for release on December 6.
Games and apps: as of September 23, 2016, I counted 131 games listed on the Oculus website. Most of the games appear to be $15 or less, although top titles are $30 to $60. Some of the best games for the Rift are Lucky’s Tale (free), Damaged Core, Chronos, EVE: Valkyrie, and Elite Dangerous.
Availability: available since March 28, 2016. There were supply issues but those have since been resolved. Now available at Amazon, Best Buy, and direct from Oculus.
What else do you need: a VR-Ready Windows PC. There’s a recommended spec and a minimum spec. The recommended spec is similar to that of the HTC Vive. For most people, adding a VR graphics card is all that’s needed. The most affordable VR-ready graphics card now is the GTX 1060 3GB ($199). However, you also need to have three USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 port. If you don’t, you’ll need to add a USB 3.0 PCI card (which is inexpensive). There’s also the minimum spec which uses a new software technique called asynchronous spacewarp which allows the Rift to run on a lower-spec “Oculus-ready” machine (with a Core i3 processor) that can cost as little as $499.
TL; DR: A totally new way to play that puts you “inside” the game.
Summary: Although Oculus Rift was the first desktop VR system to hit the market, a greater number of people are becoming aware of its rival, the HTC Vive. Indeed, among VR fans and early adopters, the HTC Vive appears to be the strongly preferred desktop VR system at the moment. Here is the result of a recent poll on Massdrop (thanks to /u/UndeadCaesar for posting):
On the other hand, these users’ preferences might not necessarily be representative of average users’ preferences.
As mentioned above, the two biggest differences between the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are room-scale VR and the motion controllers. HTC Vive is the only desktop VR system that is designed for room-scale VR at the moment. Whereas games for the Oculus Rift are generally designed for a 270-degree seated or standing experience, majority of games for the HTC Vive are room scale. For example, Budget Cuts is a stealth game where you have to crouch behind virtual walls, or even lie down on your back to avoid detection.
For fans of the HTC Vive, the room-scale VR makes the experience more immersive. On the other hand, it requires the user to clear adequate space for a playing area. The minimum recommended area is 2 meters x 1.5 meters (about 6.5 feet x 5 feet). It is also possible to use the Vive for seated or standing experiences, although like I said, a majority of games for the Vive are designed for room-scale.
The other difference between the Rift and the Vive is the motion controllers. The Vive’s controllers aren’t like the Wii’s notoriously inaccurate remote controls, but are extremely accurate, with very little lag. The controllers are so accurate that you can catch a controller thrown at you (you see a virtual representation of them in realtime while wearing the headset). The Vive included motion controllers from the beginning, therefore almost all Vive games utilize motion controllers. For example, in Paddle Up, a table tennis game, you use the controller just like a table tennis racket. It is true that Oculus is getting the Touch soon (on December 6), and they feel more natural than the Vive’s controllers, but some say that the Vive controllers have better accuracy.
The less obvious but equally important difference between the Vive and Rift is the type of games on each system. Besides room-scale vs. seated/standing, there appears to be a difference in philosophy and gaming design. To me, Rift games feel like VR adaptations of existing games, and in general seem more polished and with better graphics. It’s more about the game itself, and the VR format is secondary. With Vive, the games seem to be built with VR in mind, and the focus is on highlighting the VR experience itself. Thus, a game for the Vive might have a very simple gameplay and sometimes simpler graphics, and if it were not in VR, you would probably not even bother playing it.
For example, Space Pirate Trainer is extremely simple: you’re standing on a platform, wielding two blasters, fending off waves of flying robots. That’s all. There’s no dialogue, no backstory, no cutscenes. You don’t move to other platforms, nor does the background ever change. I can’t imagine it being any fun if it were not on VR. But Space Pirate Trainer is one of the best selling games on the HTC Vive because its appeal is in the experience of shooting at drones flying all around you, dodging bullets or deflecting them with your shield. There’s no power up that improves your accuracy or enables you to dodge better. If you want better accuracy or better dodging, you can only do it by improving your real life accuracy or dodging ability.
Because HTC Vive games tend to be designed to emphasize VR, there seems to be less emphasis on traditional gaming aspects such as graphics, sounds, or special effects. The Lab, for example, already considered one of the most polished games for the Vive, mostly has simple, stylized graphics.
It remains to be seen whether this difference in game design will change when the Touch is released.
Availability: Available since April 2016. There were some supply issues but those have been resolved. It is now available at Amazon, Gamestop, Newegg, Microsoft stores, MicroCenter and HTC Vive’s website.
What else do you need: a VR-Ready Windows PC. As with the Oculus Rift, for most people, adding a VR graphics card is all that’s needed. It also has easier requirements for ports: just one USB 2.0 port, and either an HDMI or DisplayPort.
Summary: A VR system for the Playstation 4, with positional tracking (6 degrees of freedom) just like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. However, you don’t need to buy a VR-Ready PC. All you need is a Playstation 4. As with the Oculus Rift, the Playstation VR was designed primarily for seated or standing experiences.
Hype: the most affordable full VR system; the fastest product to be sold out in Gamestop’s history; with 40 million PS4 units sold, it has the largest potential installed base of any desktop VR system.
Gotchas: graphics not as good as those of the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive (Sony openly admitted the PSVR is not in the same league). Some also point out to the space requirements, but their concerns are exaggerated. The motion controllers aren’t as accurate as those of the Vive or Rift. Finally, although the PSVR has positional tracking, the games are designed to be 270-degree experiences because the PS4 camera cannot sense the controllers when the user’s back is facing toward the camera.
Controller: Some games use the PS4’s controllers, while others will use Playstation Move controllers as motion controllers.
Summary: The ubiquitous Google Cardboard allows anyone with a modern smartphone to view photos and videos or play games with a 360 view, or even a 3D 360 view, in some cases with 360 sound, with the use of a modestly-priced headset (sometimes literally made of cardboard).
Hype: The most widely used among all of the systems here because it’s the lowest common denominator.
Gotchas: It’s the lowest quality VR experience. The tracking is not sufficiently accurate, so it doesn’t really create an illusion of virtual reality. You are fully aware that you’re looking at a display in a headset. As a result, VR aficionados usually don’t consider Google Cardboard to qualify as VR but hey, developers are developing for it about as much as for the Gear VR.
Controller: Some Cardboard headsets have a button. It’s a spring-loaded magnet that touches the smartphone screen and acts as a button in some games and apps. There are also a few Google Cardboard games that work with a Bluetooth gamepad.
Games and apps: There are too many apps to count. Some of the most significant ones are 360 video viewing apps, such as YouTube, Jaunt VR, Within (formerly Vrse), LittlStar, and Vrideo. For games, you could try Vanguard VR, or InMind VR.
Availability: available since June 2014.
Cost: $5 and above, at many retailers. A really good Google Cardboard headset is the Bobo VR Z4, which is comfortable, has built-in headphones and has a very wide 120-degree field of view.
What else do you need: a modern Android, iOS, or Windows phone.
TL; DR: the premium mobile VR experience – for now.
Summary: Often confused with Google Cardboard headsets, the Gear VR is a completely different type of headset with sensors that offer much more accurate head tracking than is possible with Google Cardboard, thanks to Samsung’s partnership with Oculus. The head tracking is accurate enough that objects shown in the headset do look like they truly exist outside of the headset. While it does a great job of tracking your head rotation, it can’t track your movement (such as standing or crouching or moving left or right), so it’s best to use it while seated on a swivel chair.
Hype: the best mobile VR experience to date; unlike desktop VR, it’s wireless / untethered; 1 million active users.
Gotchas: after 15 to 30 minutes your phone may overheat, depending on the intensity of the graphics, in which case you’ll have to pause for a couple of minutes. Drains your phone battery quickly (unless plugged into a USB charger). No native YouTube app (need to use a browser app to watch YouTube in 360).
Controller: The headset has a simple touchpad on one side. Several games require a Bluetooth gamepad.
Games and apps: as of July 9, 2016, about 270 games and apps. Typical price is around $5 to $15. Some of the best apps include: EVE Gunjack, Herobound Spirit Champion, and Netflix (which allows you to watch your Netflix shown on a ~100 inch screen at a virtual mountain lodge). You can use it to get a VR view of 360 videos and photos on Facebook. You can get exclusive access to a 360 view of certain sport events (most recently, the Rio Olympics).
Availability: available since Nov. 2015. at many online and retail stores, such as Amazon.
TL; DR: challenger for the top spot for mobile VR by opening the gates to more people.
Summary: With the success of Google Cardboard, Google announced a new headset with more accurate tracking, similar to the Samsung Gear VR. While Google Cardboard provides a low-quality VR experience, Google Daydream promises to be as good as the Samsung Gear VR. However, unlike Samsung Gear VR which is only for flagship Samsung phones, Daydream will be compatible with phones from several manufacturers. Google announced partnerships with Samsung, LG, HTC, Asus, Xiaomi, ZTE Alcatel, and Huawei.
Hype: Has Google behind it. With partnerships from several manufacturers, it could become the dominant mobile VR system. Motion controls. Lighter and more comfortable than other headsets.
Gotchas: no one knows if this new system will succeed. Google Pixel’s 1080p resolution is significantly lower than the 1440p resolution of Samsung Gear VR-compatible phones.
Controller: Daydream uses a motion controller with built-in gyroscope, similar to the Wii Remote.
Games and apps: unknown. Google has said it will have EVE: Gunjack Next and YouTube.
Availability: Google said it will be available in November 2016.
Cost: $79 or free with Google Pixel phone.
What else do you need: a Daydream-compatible phone. Currently, Google Pixel is the only officially Daydream-compatible phone, although the ZTE Axon 7 and Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe are also reportedly Daydream-compatible.
Is there a killer app?
If by killer app, you mean a system seller (i.e., the app or game is so good you’ll buy a system for it), there is no game or app that is widely recognized as a killer app, for any of the systems. In my opinion, they don’t need a killer app. To me, it’s like my smartphone. I don’ t have any game or app that is a system seller, but there’s no way I would trade a smartphone for a regular cell phone. Similarly, the value of VR is in VR itself.
Having said that, there are certain VR games that are amazing for their genre and might qualify as killer apps if you’re into that genre:
– If you are really into Minecraft, Minecraft (Oculus Rift, Gear VR) or Vivecraft (an add-on to Minecraft for the HTC Vive) could be the system seller for you. These VR versions of Minecraft allow you to be “inside” the Minecraft world. I don’t play Minecraft and even I find them amazing. 3DSunshine (HTC Vive) also lets you build Minecraft worlds in VR.
– If you are really into military sims, Onward (HTC Vive) may be the system seller for you. Onward is a 4 vs. 4 online tactical shooter, which became the most widely played online HTC Vive game by a huge margin (it still is).
– If you’re into creative art, Tiltbrush (HTC Vive) or Medium (Oculus Touch) may be the system seller for you. They let you paint or sculpt in VR.
What about Apple?
Among these VR systems, only Google cardboard is compatible with Apple smartphones. Other systems are compatible with neither Apple phones nor Mac OS X. However, it is known that Apple is “interested” in VR and AR. We may see an Apple VR or AR system but it could be a while. In the past, there have been leaks about Apple products before their launch, e.g. Apple Watch, the dual-lens iPhone 7, etc. There have been no leaks about Apple VR or AR — only speculation, therefore I believe we are at least 2 years away from an Apple VR or AR product.
What about AR?
Magic Leap sounds amazing but who knows when it’s coming out, or if it will be affordable by the average consumer. Hololens is already out but costs $3000. It’s intended primarily for industrial use. Google’s Project Tango is already out (Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is the first Project Tango phone) but has little support so far. In short, AR is currently expensive, and is not yet ready for consumers.
Which VR system do you like best? Let me know in the comments!