Like any new technology that’s getting hype, things are changing on a daily basis when it comes to VR. A lot of people who have never given VR a second thought are now chomping at the bit to get their hands on VR hardware.
Don’t think the business world hasn’t noticed, either. The market is being flooded by products, often from less-than-stellar sources, capitalizing on the VR craze. It’s going to take a while for the market to stabilize and for sanity to prevail. Just think back to when the first iPhone was released and the smartphone revolution really got going. Millions of people who couldn’t afford Apple’s premium device went out and bought bad copies of it. Today the smartphone market is pretty mature and almost any mid- to high-end phone isn’t going to disappoint.
VR has a long way to go before it reaches that point of maturity, but in the meantime you still want in on the action. So here I’m going to lay out the VR market in the simplest way I can, so that you can make sure you’re getting exactly what you expect when the time comes to splash the cash.
Worth Its Weight in Gold
The first thing you have to accept is that good VR is expensive. When we’re talking about the best consumer experiences, the stuff that people are raving about, then the amounts are in the thousands of dollars. Just the high-end headsets are liable to set you back almost a thousand bucks. The good news is that these prices are going down constantly and the lower-end hardware of tomorrow is going to be as fast as the top-end stuff of today.
The bottom line is that if a product seems a lot cheaper than it should be, it’s a good idea to do your research before making a purchase. There are three main classes of VR product and I’m going to talk about each of them in turn next.
Mobile Smartphone VR
In terms of sheer numbers this is the most common VR product today. Basically, it’s merely a plastic casing you slip your phone into. Inside the case there’s a divider and two lenses; one for each eye.
You run VR apps on the phone, which then provides a split screen image. All the VR graphics processing and motion tracking is done using your phone’s internals. Most of these products are, literally, just a shell. This means that your phone’s specifications and screen resolution are major factors in the quality of the VR experience. That doesn’t mean the nature of the case is irrelevant.
For one thing, the optics matter quite a bit. Cheap plastic lenses might distort the images or scratch up badly. Try to get a mobile headset case that uses lenses that are treated against smudges and scratches. Glass is still the best material, in my opinion, but there are excellent lenses made from other synthetic materials too.
One of the most important features you need to look out for is something called “field of view”. This applies to all VR headsets, not just mobile ones.
As Far as the Eye Can See
Simply put, your field of view is how much of a scene is visible to your eyes. Human beings have a horizontal field of view about 210 degrees wide. The middle 114 degrees are where you can see in 3D and then each eye has some more vision to either side that’s “peripheral” vision. The wider the field of view is for a given VR headset, the less you feel like you’re wearing goggles and the more realistic and immersive things are.
You should not settle for anything under 90 degrees and that’s pretty much par for the course on a mobile VR headset. Some high end sets have achieved 110 degrees or more, but 100 degrees is the gold standard in mobile VR at the moment.
While most mobile VR headsets are nothing more than some lenses, a plastic case, and straps, there are a few that offer more than this. Some might provide a USB pass-through, so that you can charge the phone without removing it from the headset. This may also allow for tethering to external hardware, although that’s not common practice at the moment.
There may also be additional motion sensors, batteries, and control buttons. Often these headsets will only work with a particular make or model of phone. For example, the Samsung Galaxy VR headsets are excellent products, but will only work with certain flagship phones from Samsung itself.
The Mobile Experience
When it comes to the sort of VR experience that you can expect from a mobile smartphone VR case, the truth is that you should manage your expectations. At the moment, mobile VR tends to range from being just OK to being actively unpleasant. Even if you have a very good phone, chances are it doesn’t have the right sort of screen (low persistence, high refresh rate) that good VR requires. On top of this, the best 3D hardware for smartphones is still a long way from having the grunt for great VR. This is changing fast, but it will probably be years before the hardware advances enough to match up to the really premium stuff available today.
For watching 3D or 360-degree video, mobile headsets are pretty great. There are also some really cool games you can play that were designed for the hardware and so come out well. You may want to invest in a wireless gamepad compatible with your phone and the desired apps to make the most of it all.
Mobile headsets are a cheap way to turn the expensive phone you already have into a sort-of OK VR device. If you pick your apps carefully you can have a lot of fun, but it’s the very slightest of toe-dippings into the world of VR.
Standalone Mobile Headsets
As I write this there are no standalone mobile headsets on the market. However, at least two have been announced by major players, which means that soon you’ll have the option of buying one of these mysterious new devices. Unlike the mobile headset cases we just talked about, standalone VR headsets have all the hardware needed to run their VR software built into them. In practice, this is the same sort of processing hardware you’d find in a smartphone, but there are some very important differences with these headsets.
Built for Battle
Standalone headsets are designed from the ground up to be used for VR. This means they’re better at the job for a number of reasons.
The first advantage is that their screen (or screens) is selected for its suitability for VR. So it will be a low-persistence model (it doesn’t blur) and have a fast refresh rate. There may also be two separate screens angled in such a way so that you get a wider field of view and a more natural picture for each eye.
The next advantage of a standalone headset is hardware performance. Your phone is a multitasking computer. While you’re playing around in VR it still has to dedicate processing time to handle other things like email and monitoring cellular signals. With a standalone system that’s not the case; the hardware can be dedicated 100% to the task at hand.
Hardware can also perform better because of the shape and size of the headset itself. When you have to squeeze all that hardware into an object the size of a smartphone, you have to make a lot of concessions when it comes to heat and battery life. The inside of a VR headset is much roomier than a phone chassis, which means you can run things faster and hotter. The biggest problem with mobile VR is how quickly the phone inside overheats and shuts down – that shouldn’t be an issue with a standalone system.
These devices will also be platforms in their own right, the same way that a Nintendo 3DS or Playstation Vita is a specific platform. Apps will have to be written or ported to the device, even if it runs a modified version of current mobile operating systems like Android. So it would be a good idea to aim for one of the models that seems most likely to get good developer support. You don’t want to be the one who backs Betamax when the world has chosen VHS!
You can expect to pay as much for one of these VR headsets as you would for a premium non-mobile unit. However, you also don’t have to pay for a high-end computer to make it work.
If you already have a pricey phone it may seem like quite an expense, so you’d have to think about whether the improvements in the actual VR experience are worth the outlay. If your phone is a modest model then this is a very viable option from the get go, but if you aren’t sure about wanting VR you are better off trying out cheap VR phone cases. If you’re serious about VR on the go, these promise to be the best that money can buy.
Premium Tethered VR
These are the big dogs – the very best VR systems that you can buy as a regular person who does not have a military budget or corporate expense account. These headsets cannot work by themselves, but have to be connected to an external computer.
In most cases this means having a very powerful PC hooked up to the VR headset, which does all the thinking and computing.
At the moment, “tethered” literally means there are cables running from the headset to the computer, which means that this is usually a standing or seated experience. That’s changing, however, and wireless display technology is getting good enough where you might be able to cut the cord without lag or reception problems. In both cases, though, you’re still tethered to an external computer, whether it’s with copper wire or radio waves.
The good news is that computer hardware is getting cheaper and more powerful all the time, so the computer you need to meet the minimum requirements for VR today will be much cheaper in the near future. This has already happened and there are now even VR-certified laptops! Even so, this is by far the most expensive way to get into virtual reality.
A Great Presence
Once you’ve experienced this type of VR you’ll understand what the hype is about. The detail, optics, and sense of presence you get when using one of these systems is hard to describe, but it’s an illusion that stays with you no matter how sure you are that it’s just a simulation. This is something they have achieved through years of research and design getting the optics just right; tuning the electronics until there’s no perceptible lag between your movements and those of your virtual body. Your brain receives all the sensory input through your eyes and ears that it expects. The important imperfections that break the illusion of the virtual world have largely been ironed out. Right now this is the best example of VR you can own. QED.
Odds and Ends
Apart from these three main types of headset, you’ll have to consider some accessories as well. I’ve mentioned a wireless game controller for mobile VR already, but even with tethered VR they are a primary input method. The good news is that most of the premium tethered VR products actually come with a good gamepad in the box. Apart from the gamepad option, there may also be motion controllers provided by that manufacturer. Oculus has the touch controller and Sony has the Playstation Move controllers, for example.
I’ll talk about these non-headset products in other articles on the site.
How much money you are willing to spend is directly correlated to how good your VR experience will be. That’s not to say that the experiences on the cheaper options are bad – just not as good. If you mainly want some simple games and a cool way to watch movies on a plane or in your bedroom, the mobile stuff is worth looking at. If you want the best, well, you know the price and the reward now. The decision is yours.