THIS IS THE YEAR of virtual reality (VR). Like it or loathe it, VR is pretty much the biggest deal of 2016, with a veritable smorgasbord of big names and niche players making VR headsets, apps and peripheral gadgets.
So much so that the range of tech on offer can get a bit befuddling. But before you curl up in a ball and wish for a simpler time when virtual worlds were flat 2D environments negotiated through a flickering CTR TV and a colourful Nintendo controller, we have a rundown on the most important and interesting VR headsets available now and on the horizon.
Here’s where modern VR all started, particularly if we forget the headache-inducing Virtual Boy from 1990’s Nintendo. The brainchild of 23-year-old inventor Palmer Luckey, the Oculus Rift has since been snapped up by Facebook.
Despite fears it would become a dystopian advertising and obnoxious status-sharing platform, the Oculus Rift evolved to become a proper VR headset, offering smooth frame rates, rapid refresh times, and 1080p resolution for both eyes. This transformed the Rift from slightly rough early prototypes into a piece of hardware that seems to have opened the floodgates for other tech companies to follow suit with their own VR gadgets.
The Rift naturally allows for 360-degree views of a virtual world with movement commonly controlled using a games console-style controller. However, forthcoming motion controllers are also on offer, which allow wearers to have their movements tracked allowing for more physical interaction in virtual environments, adding to the level of immersion VR can deliver.
It’s been a long time coming, but with inception and now release of the Oculus Rift, VR is finally back and is a surprisingly useable and pleasant experience.
Arguably the best VR headset and experience on offer, the Vive was birthed from a tie-up between gaming giant Valve and stylish smartphone maker HTC. Consisting of a chunky, sensor leaden but surprisingly comfortable headset, infrared sensors, a connections box and two motion controllers, the Vive is a serious piece of kit.
While many VR headsets allow for the wearers to look around in 360-degrees in the virtual environment, a controller normally dictates movement within it. The Vive is different, using motion tracking to map a person’s movements in the real world to the virtual world.
This means people can literally walk in make-believe environments, and using the slick motion-tracking controllers, they can interact with objects in the virtual world. The experience is uncanny and utterly absorbing. From dodging murderous robots in space, to painting rude words in 3D against a night sky backdrop, the HTC Vive comes as close as Star Trek’s Holodeck as consumer technology allows.
There are a few caveats that pour water on the VR trail the Vive blazes. For a start, a decent amount of free space is needed to get the most out of it; it can be used fairly constrained spaces but the experience of moving around in a large virtual world can be negated.
Then there’s the need for a capable gaming PC, something that costs on average around £600, and getting the best out of the HTC Vive requires a hefty gaming machine likely costing well over £1,000.
Talking of price, the headset itself costs a wallet-emptying £689, which is a lot especially as the amount of native VR games and high-quality experiences have yet to be created. But for early adopters, the Vive offers one of the best VR headsets on the market, and is not likely disappoint.
Samsung Gear VR
Probably one of the easiest ways to get a decent VR headset for under £100, Samsung’s Gear VR was created in partnership with Oculus and offers a pair of goggles with lenses capable of feeding back a resolution of 2560x1440 to both eyes, touch controls and a dock for a compatible Samsung smartphone.
The Gear VR uses the smartphone effectively as the VR engine of the headset, with it rendering the 3D images and tracking head movements.
As you’d expect the power on offer from a smartphone is not comparable to that of the PC needed for running the Rift and HTC Vive. But the Gear VR when paired with a Galaxy S6 or the latest Galaxy S7 runs at a solid 60fps, which should avoid causing too much nausea for the wearer.
Working in tandem with the Oculus app, the Gear VR is able to provide 3D web browsing, video, photo, and with a little work around even porn viewing. It can also be paired with a Bluetooth controller and used to play mobile games in VR.
All in all, the Gear VR is a relatively flexible piece of hardware and given it comes free with every Galaxy S7, should end up being lots of people first taste of VR. The only problem is it can gobble battery life, so it’s fortunate Samsung has upped the battery capacity of the Galaxy S7 over its predecessor.
There are also numerous headsets that ape the Gear VR’s design but worth with a wider range of smartphones. But arguably, it was the starting point for creating smartphone-compatible VR experiences, and for the first device out of the starting blocks, Samsung has created a very capable VR headset.
If you are looking for a barebones entry-level VR device, then Google’s Cardboard is the device for you. As its name suggests, the headset in made out of thick cardboard in the shape of a pair of boxy goggles and consists a pair of basic but functional lenses.
Like the Gear VR, Cardboard relies on a smartphone as the VR engine, and used with the Cardboard app on either Android or iOS, the device offers basic VR experiences like 360-degree photo and video viewing and some simple games.
It’s not exactly ground-breaking tech, but it offers a very easy way to get a taste for VR. And is an inexpensive way for small businesses to provide access to VR experiences without shelling out for a full-fat headset.
We’re still waiting to see if Google builds upon Cardboard and releases a proper headset; possibly borrowing some of its tech from the now canned Google Glass augmented reality specs. That’s would mean a heady mix of VR and augmented reality (AR) in a single lightweight headset; quite a compelling concept.
The Sulon Q, created by startup Sulon Technologies, is a bit of an oddball VR headset. Using AMD’s FX-8800P central and graphics processor chip, a suite visual APIs, 3D sound and a 2560x1440 OLED display, the Sulon Q is a headset will all the VR tech built into it. That means no need to rely on a smartphone of external PC to power it.
Yet-to-be released, the Sulon Q has been slated to be able to deliver games console grade graphics, all from a head-mounted wearable. So far, so impressive.
The strange part is it’s effectively a wearable computer you pop over your head. Now games console tech is pretty heavy and Sulon Technologies have kept schtum on how heavy the Solo Q is. But, we’re calling it now: it won’t be lightweight.
So while the headset offers both VR and AR visuals on a single-self contained unit, it could be weighty enough to cause some serious neck cricks and headaches.
We’ll reserve judgement until we get to try out a final version of it ourselves, but the Sulon Q does demonstrate how VR technology is already moving towards creating technology which offers an all-in-one experience by using system-on-a-chip hardware, thereby avoiding the need for proprietary smartphones or high powered PCs. That can only be a good thing in the long term.
Previously known as Project Morpheus, Sony’s answer to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive is a headset that looks something like a sci-fi visor designed by Apple. Created as a plug and play device for PlayStation 4 owners, the headset works with the console’s optional PlayStation Camera to mix VR displays with 360-degree head motion tracking chops.
With a 5.7in OLED display kicking out a resolution of 1080p per eye and a refresh rate of 120Htz, the PlayStation VR promises some pretty slick VR tech.
Control will be handheld by Sony’s rather nice DualShock 4 controller, or its rather strange looking brace of Move motion tracking controllers. But sadly it currently lacks the full body movement tracking system of the HTC Vive or the controllers scheduled for release for the Oculus Rift. But it makes up on this in cost, undercutting its rivals with a price of £349.
The smart part of the Sony’s VR headset is its processor box, which allows for the headset to output what the wearer is seeing on to a second screen to make VR gaming sessions less of an individual experience. We’re not sure of we like the idea od other people watching us as we bumble around a virtual world.
Microsoft’s foray into VR is a bit of an oddball hybrid mix of VR and AR, pulling the two realities into one visor, that has often been marketed as a way to turn your home into a canvas for Windows 10 icons and a virtual battleground.
Resembling a mix between a pair of chunky Ray-Bans and Star Trek’s Geordi La Forge’s visor, the HoloLens headset offers a see-though display that can overlay graphics and images onto object and surfaces in the real-world.
Demos to date have shown how it can be used to blast robots in living rooms with a VR gun, use Skype in AR, and create things in a VR-come-AR environment. It’s a pretty weird mix but one that we can’t help feel intrigued by.
On the tech side HoloLens comes rocking a suite of built-in hardware, with an Intel Atom dual-core CPU running at 1.04GHz and 2GB of RAM providing the compute power, and 64GB of on-board storage. Windows 10 also comes baked into the headset.
To power the VR and AR side of things Microsoft has its own custom Holographic Processing Unit that crunches all the data the headset’s cameras and sensors hoover up and uses it to create the HoloLens experience displayed on high definition lenses.
If all this seems a little too sci-fi for you, then let us throw a cold bucket of water on things, by noting that the HoloLens is only currently available in a developer version that will set back those lucky enough to be approved by Redmond an accountant-killing $3,000.
We reckon people who want to dick around with AR and Minecraft in their living rooms best hold out until Microsoft has refined the tech and made it more consumer wallet friendly. But early adopters with deep wallets could be in for a real slice of cutting edge tech.
So, that’s a few VR headsets to get your head around and in. And there are likely more to come as tech companies get increasingly curious about what they can do with virtual bits and bobs. Even better, as the VR sector grows, an ecosystem will build up around it.
That means better virtual experiences, games, and maybe one day a means to escape the rigours of the physical world altogether. µ
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