It's already been said so many times before that people are probably sick to death of hearing it, but it's true: 2016 really is the year of virtual reality.
Palmer Luckey and Oculus kickstarted the revival with its crowd-funded prototype, and the headputer revolution been creeping up on us ever since thanks to the efforts from the likes of Google and Samsung. But now the time has come to enter the big leagues. With the big two headsets going on sale and the launch of the rest of the pack just over the horizon, here's everything you need to know about virtual reality, and the headsets offered by Oculus, HTC/Valve, Samsung, Sony and more, before you go slapping down the cash.
While the Vive hasn't been in play for quite as long as the Oculus Rift, the headset (co-developed by Valve and HTC) has already wowed critics across the world - including us here at Giz UK. So what's the deal with Valve and HTC's VR collaboration? Let's take a look.
The display inside the Vive headset is made of up two OLED panels (one for each eye), each with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 (1080p). Each panel has a refresh rate of 90Hz, which allows content to be rendered up to 90 frames per second. The headset offers a 110-degree field of view, and has mechanisms for lens alteration. While the mechanisms seem to be hidden away, it does mean you can change the distance between the lenses and the distance between them and your face relatively easily. This will also make it slightly more convenient for glasses wearers, and will let you adjust the 3D depth affect to suit the unique spacing between your eyeballs.
Unlike the Oculus Rift, the Vive will encourage users to physically walk around virtual worlds, with cameras dotted around a room tracking your movements and feeding that back into a computer, in turn fed back into the headset. In order to make this safe will your natural view is obscured, the Vive has a front-facing camera which can be fed into the headset display in order to identify stationary obstacles during use. That means while you're wandering around in the virtual realms, you'll get a warning before you walk into the real-world wall, or go crotch-first into a table.
The headset also has a feature called 'Vive Phone Services' which is capable of connecting to Android and iOS smartphones to display notifications while you're playing. So you won't be completely cut off from the outside world.
One thing the Vive doesn't seem to include is headphones, unlike the Oculus Rift which has its own 3D-audio headphones built in. Valve and HTC did promise it, but for the foreseeable future you're going to have to supply some headphones yourself.
Valve, and bossman Gabe Newell, have claimed that zero per cent of people suffer from motion sickness while using the Vive – a common side effect of virtual reality sessions, as the body can't compensate for the disconnect between the movement you're seeing and your stationary body. Unfortunately they haven't really shown off how they've worked that out, given the so-far-limited exposure the headset has had. So take that with a pinch of salt. One Steam dev did go on record last year, claiming that motion sickness was a problem with software not hardware. We'll have to see about that.
We've already posted an in-depth look into how the Vive's tracking system, called 'Lighthouse', works. I'm going to summarise the basics here, but if you want to get technical make sure to check that earlier article out.
Essentially, Lighthouse fills the room you're in with non-visible light which is emitted by lasers and LEDs inside two sensor boxes that come bundled with the headset. The LEDs flash light 60 times every second, and then the spinning lasers fires a sweeping beam of light across the room. Photosensors on the headset and controllers detect this light, and whenever a flash occurs it counts down until the sensors get hit by the laser. From there it's able to work out your exact location relative to the sensor boxes.
Using the two sensors in conjunction with each other, the Vive is able to track any compatible VR hardware within a 15 square foot radius. That should be more than enough to fill a small room.
As for the actual game input, you will need controllers. You can use the VR controllers (because why wouldn't you?) but the Vive is also compatible with any gamepad that you can use on your PC. That includes the Steam controller, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, and PS4.
Definitely the pricier headset thanks to an upfront cost of £689 (plus shipping), the HTC Vive is available to pre-order right now. But that high price is not unwarranted. In the bundle you get the headset, two VR controllers, two sensors offering full-room movement tracking, plus copies of Tilt Brush (Google's 3D painting application), Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives, and Fantastic Contraption. It also comes with a hub that feeds all the information from the controllers, sensors, and headset into your computer via USB.
That means you can get the full VR experience in April if you buy an HTC Vive. Oculus Rift owners, on the other hand, will have to wait until the second half of this year for extras like the motion controllers and eventual full-motion movement tracking. But more on that later.
The Vive is set to be released on 9th April, 11 days after the first wave of Oculus Rift headsets arrive in the hands of consumers. 11 days is such a HUGE wait, but anyone who doesn't already have an Oculus Rift pre-order is going to have to wait until July. If you hurry you should be able to get yourself a Vive a lot sooner than that.
Since Vive's take on virtual reality relies on PC hardware to play games, you will need a souped-up PC that can handle it. Sadly it doesn't look like they'll be coming cheap. Bummer. If you don't want to check your own specs against the official ones manually, Valve has released a tool for testing whether or not your PC is capable of playing VR games on the HTC Vive.
If you'd rather do the grunt work yourself, here are the officially released recommended system requirements:
NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater
Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output
1x USB 2.0 ports
Windows 7 SP1 or newer
It's worth mentioning that these are the recommended system requirements, and the minimum specs might be lower. Sadly we don't have any information about that on hand yet, so I wouldn't risk it until someone's had chance to do some proper tests.
Oculus is probably the biggest name in VR right now, simply because they've been working towards a consumer headset since the launch of its Kickstarter campaign back in 2012. After a very long wait, the first consumer Oculus Rift headset will soon be in the hands of the people. Here are all the little details you should know about it before you buy.
The display inside each Oculus Rift headset contains two OLED panels (one for each eye), both of which have a 1080 x 1920 (1080p) resolution. The panels have a refresh rate of 90Hz, globally refresh (rather than scanning out in lines), and low persistence that only displays an image for 2 milliseconds of each frame. By combining these three things, anyone using the Rift won't experience motion blurring that is often experienced on regular monitors. This combination was also put together to lower the chance of users experiencing motion sickness.
The lenses inside the Rift offer a 110-degree field of view, and a dial at the bottom can be used to change the distance between them. There doesn't appear to be any way of changing the focus of the lenses, but the final bundle will have a number of facial interfaces so that users can position their eyes at different distances. These interfaces also allow for glasses wearers to use the headset unimpeded.
The Rift headset also comes with a pair of integrated headphones that are designed to offer a 3D audio effect while in use.
User tracking is done with Oculus's own 'Constellation' tracking system, which is used to keep tabs on head movement and other VR devices that are in use. This occurs thanks to a series of blinking infra-red LED lights underneath the surface of the headset. By knowing the configuration of the LEDs, and the pattern they blink in, the system is capable of tracking their precise location with low-latency, and sub-millimetre accuracy. This tracking area is limited to a radius of 5ft x 11ft, though.
Each sensor looks a bit like a mic stand, and one of them is included in the main bundle. While you only need a single sensor to use the Rift headset, bringing other compatible VR devices (like the Touch controllers) will require a second one for everything to work properly. Adding more sensors also means that the system is capable of tracking what's going on in the whole room, in the same way the Vive works (though this kind or tracking is unlikely to be useable in any meaningful way at launch).
As for game input, right now the Rift is only compatible with Xbox One controllers. Those touch controllers come later.
Available to pre-order right now, the Oculus Rift will cost you £499 (plus shipping costs). That's not quite as much as the Vive. HOWEVER. Unfortunately, unlike the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift will not be bundled with Oculus Touch controllers at launch. Instead, the bundle you buy comes with a wireless Xbox One controller and an adaptor to let you use it with your PC. The Touch controllers won't be available to buy until the second half of this year. Providing, of course, that they don't get delayed again. That also means we don't have any information on pricing for them, and it'll likely be some time until we do, so factor that in when weighing it up against what seems the more expensive Vive. The good news is that anyone who pre-orders an Oculus Rift will be first in line to order the Touch controllers when they're available.
For that £499 price, then, you get the headset, all the appropriate sensors and cables, a remote, an Xbox One controller, plus a copy of EVE: Valkyrie and Lucky's Tale. While the official release date is set as 28th March, anyone pre-ordering right now is going to have to wait until July before they'll get their Rift, as the first wave of hardware has long sold out.
Oculus has also announced that anyone who pledged more than $275/£197.30 to its Kickstarter campaign back in 2012 will receive a free headset when the consumer model is released later this year. That'll also come with the two games.
If you want to check if your PC can handle it before you spend a few hundred quid on upgrades (or a brand new machine) Oculus has a tool that lets you check your specs - provided you're running Windows.
Or you can check up on things yourself, with the officially released system requirements:
NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater
Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output
2x USB 3.0 ports
Windows 7 SP1 or newer
Those are the recommended requirements released by Oculus, but PC gaming specs are usually a bit higher than what's actually required to get things in an at-least-workable state. Sadly it's not clear what the minimum system requirements are right now.
It's also worth pointing out that you'll need a bit more hardware for the Rift than you will for the HTC Vive. Namely an extra 4GB of RAM, and 2 USB 3.0 ports (compared to the one USB 2.0 used by the Vive)
Samsung Gear VR
If you want the basic jist of what the Gear VR is, you just need to remember that it's an Oculus-made headset compatible with a number of flagship Samsung Galaxy devices, but powered by a high-end mobile. Think "Oculus Lite". The current version of the Gear VR (dubbed the 'Consumer Version' by many outlets) was released last year, costs £70-£100, and is compatible with the Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy S6 Edge+, Galaxy Note 5, and (when they're eventually released) the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge.
Compared to other mobile-powered VR experiences (of which there are now many, of varying quality), the Gear VR is among the most impressive. For starters the Gear VR is a much more advanced system, offering better head tracking, has a built-in micro USB dock, a focus wheel to match the lenses up to your eyes, and a touchpad for navigating to the many apps that are available from the Oculus Store. The headset itself is a lot more comfortable too, and it's been designed so people can use the headset without taking off their glasses first.
So there's a pretty big reason why the Gear VR costs £70+ compared to the cheaper plastic shells claiming comparable VR visuals.
It may be a surprise to many that Samsung isn't that involved with the Gear VR. Not on the same level as their other products, at any rate. The headset was created by Oculus (of Oculus Rift fame), and all the software and apps are controlled and curated by Oculus. Even the payment system is managed by Oculus, and not Samsung. Not that that's a bad thing, though, since it means the Gear VR can benefit from Oculus's years of experience working with virtual reality platforms, while taking advantage of Samsung's premium mobile displays.
Those of you who read ahead might be wondering if it's possible to use Google Cardboard apps, rather than stick with what Oculus says you can have. It is possible to use Cardboard apps with the Gear VR, but you can't just open up an app and expect it to work. There's some fiddling involved. Luckily, from the looks of things, it's nothing too complicated. A quick Google search should show you plenty of ways to accomplish this, if that's something you're interested in.
The downside to the Gear VR is that there isn't a whole lot of fancy hardware to go with it. While the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive both have specialist controllers and hardware to help with the immersion, the Gear VR only has a basic Bluetooth gamepad. There are some motion controls in the works, but aside from a brief appearance at CES we haven't had many details.
Little bit rubbish, but then again given the recommended specs for VR-ready PCs it's unlikely that any smartphone could handle AAA gaming in VR. Gear VR is a good way to test the virtual waters, then.
Google's been working tirelessly to make sure virtual reality isn't just about pricey headsets that nobody can afford. That's why it launched Cardboard in 2014. The idea was that Google would create a set of open-source requirements for smartphone-powered VR headsets, and anyone could go out and sell them to the public. The plans are freely available so anyone can make their own Cardboard headset, too.
Cardboard is very basic, and can be rather uncomfortable to wear, but it still provides a rough VR experience using hardware that people already own – their own smartphones. It offers nowhere near the same level of immersion as the more expensive headsets, but it's there and it's good for what it is. Never forget that a piece of cardboard and a couple of lenses mean you can use one of the thousand Cardboard-compatible apps whenever you feel like it. Be it wandering around Google Street View, practising your speeches, or even streaming games from your PC.
Plus the low-cost of cardboard means it's easy to tweak and modify, which is what Google did with Cardboard 2.0 last summer. Obviously tweaking the Cardboard experience is bound to be on the agenda for I/O 2016, and there is no doubt that Google will have a few announcements to make. Rumour is that there is a plastic headset in the works, and even one that doesn't need a smartphone attached.
Sony’s headset actually looks pretty good compared to most of the other models on the market, and could be a dark horse in the virtual reality race. Technical bits first though. The headset has a 5.7-inch OLED display with a 1920 x 1080 resolution (960 x 1080 for each eye), support for frame rates up to 120fps, a 100-degree field of view, and the option to display an unwarped version of PlayStation VR-compatible games on your TV screen.
PlayStation VR is also the reason why all Dualshock 4 controllers have those ridiculous lights that you can't turn off. The whole tracking system works thanks to these lights, which are tracked by the PS Eye camera and fed into the console. The headset itself has nine LEDs that lets the console keep tabs on head movements, and gameplay can be controlled with the standard Dualshock 4 controllers or the wand-shaped PS Move controllers originally released back in 2010.
Why might it be a surprise winner? Half of the hardware required to use it already sits in millions of homes and offices around the world. It works with the PS4 console, rather than a crazy-expensive PC or limited smartphone, and that could prove a crucial factor.
Included in the box -- alongside the headset, of course -- are a processor unit, a VR headset connection cable, HDMI and USB cables, headphones, and a power supply. Unfortunately, a PlayStation Camera (£40) and Move controllers (£24 a pop) have to be purchased separately.
Sony's promised that over 50 PlayStation VR games will be available by the end of the year, with Batman Arkham VR, Eve: Valkyrie and Farpoint some of the standout confirmed titles so far. You can expect plenty more news on this front in the coming weeks.
Sony's only revealed US pricing so far, announcing at E3 that the PlayStation VR will come out on October 13th for $399 (£282). That makes it significantly cheaper than its rivals. You can, however, pre-order it from a number of online retailers, including Amazon UK, with prices starting at £349.