Virtual reality has been around for decades, but it's only of late that the technology has properly matured with reliable consumer-grade headsets, room-scale tracking, high quality touch controllers and a library of games worth exploring.
So now that people can get into virtual reality in a range of ways - from mobiles to consoles to the top-end headsets - what's changed? Here's everything you need to know about VR.
How Does It Work?
The building blocks of virtual reality is a set of displays, typically one for each of your eyes, built into a headset that wraps around your head. A set of lenses are then placed in front of each screen, creating a stereoscopic 3D image by angling the flat 2D images from each screen into something more akin to how the human eyes have slightly different perspectives on the world.
You can get an idea of the principle by looking at an object and then looking at it with just one eye. The picture above shows the raw images beamed onto each screen, and you can see this in the flesh by taking a VR headset off and looking individually through each lens.
Part of VR's trick lies in the immersion, which is generated by having a wide field of view. Humans naturally have a field of view of around 170 degrees, but early head-mounted devices only had a field of view of less than 50 degrees. That's been greatly expanded since then: the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have a FOV of around 110o, a good deal less than what humans see normally, while PlayStation VR is a fraction less at approximately 100o.
But it's wide enough to trick the brain into buying into the experience, and there's a practical benefit too: the wider your field of view is, the more sensitive you are to motion. So having just enough field of view is actually better, because it gives developers more leeway when building their games without sending users' stomachs into a spin.
The complete illusion needs appropriate visuals and audio to work, however, and getting the visuals right has been one of virtual reality's bugbears in the past. Not only was the quality too low, but the delay between moving your head and the response from the image inside the headset left people nauseous in minutes. (The technical explanation has to do with the gap between the motion our head feels with our inner ears and the image being beamed to our eyes.)
The latest generation of VR headsets has vastly increased refresh rates and frame rates, however, eliminating two of the main problems that sent users searching for a barf bag. Headsets these days also have an advanced array of accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes for precise head tracking. The amount of tech varies from headset to headset; you'll find more advanced tracking in OSVR (open-source virtual reality, a headset from Sensics and Razer) and the Vive than the Samsung Gear VR.
Each headset will have its own means of tracking the user in the virtual world as well. For low-end devices like Google Cardboard and Gear VR, you'll mostly be restricted to looking around the in-game environment. More expensive devices will have touch controllers and room-scale capabilities, although the precision of the Rift and the Vive, with their wireless sensor boxes, is significantly higher than PSVR (which relies on a single, older PlayStation Camera to track the player's movements).
Why Virtual Reality?
Developers and manufacturers often throw around the word "immersion" a lot, so much so that it can start to lose meaning. It's something you have to experience, rather than something you can explain, and the best way to do that is often by trying a headset on yourself. Alternatively, a really good image will do the trick: above is Amanda Yeo, Kotaku AU's erstwhile morning sub-editor, trying virtual reality for the first time.
It's one of my favourite pictures of the "VR reaction". Being closed off from the rest of the world and transported into a virtual environment has a lot of utility, and when done right it can create an experience that you simply can't match with a regular 2D or 3D screen.
Right now, it could be argued that the technology is currently more helpful for developers making applications that have nothing to do with gaming. The construction industry is already using VR headsets to help visualise and manage projects. IKEA released a free VR app on Steam that lets users explore a virtual kitchen in 3D, and the furnishings giant has already indicated it might introduce VR experiences in-store down the road.
Tourism Australia has published an app for Google Cardboard that gives people first person views of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and the National Museum of Australia recently wrapped up a virtual reality experience featuring David Attenborough. You can even view a surgery in VR, although I'd avoid it if you're the squeamish type.
Intel also showcased a future for sports at CES earlier this year, with attendees given the chance to view a live college basketball match from multiple cameras in the stadium. Directors have even begun using VR to help them direct scenes, as Gareth Edwards did with Rogue One.
As for games, VR can transform existing titles that weren't originally built for the hardware. VorpX is a third-party driver for the Rift and Vive that makes games, including Grand Theft Auto 5 and Skyrim, VR compatible. Thumper is perfectly playable on a regular screen, but playing it in VR adds a degree of intensity that rhythm games haven't had.
Most people won't be able to recreate it in their homes, but the best illustration of VR gaming right now is Zero Latency in Melbourne. Using backpack VR PCs to eliminate the problem of being tethered to a PC on the floor, Zero Latency puts players into a warehouse space and lets them duke it out in futuristic environments. There's missions where players duke it out against waves of zombies and enemies, but there's also a puzzle game and the co-op sci-fi shooter Singularity, complete with jump scares and intense firefights. It's as much of a physical experience as a virtual one.
The Rift, courtesy of its Kickstarter and the subsequent development kits that followed, helped bring virtual reality back into the mainstream. And while it's not the only option for those who want to live on the cutting edge, it's not a bad choice.
But with the Touch controllers finally shipping at the end of last year and having just had a discount that brings the cost of the headset and base stations down.
One thing the Rift has in spades as well is content, either through the Rift-compatible games on Steam or the exclusives available through the Oculus Store. The best example is probably SUPERHOT VR, the VR version of the slow-mo bullet dodging indie that was one of my favourite games of 2016.
The Rift doesn't necessarily have an advantage in content, but the recently shipped Touch controllers are pretty outstanding. They're light and built around a counterblanace that sits comfortably in the palm of each hand. Each controller runs off a single AAA battery that lasts for weeks, according to Kirk's testing, and the Rift's integrated headphones are also excellent. The hardware requirements have dropped a fraction since launch too, and the latest graphics cards have meant that you don't need to spend as much on your PC as before to enjoy the cream of the VR crop.
The advantage of investing in a high end headset like the Rift means you can enjoy games like Elite: Dangerous in the best possible fashion, games that are too graphically demanding for the mobile or PS4-powered alternatives. The better tracking also means shooters like Arizona Sunshine are vastly superior, since you won't be plagued with jitters or a lack of precision when you're trying to mow down the waves of zombies coming at you.
Rift's main issue is one of tethering: if you're going to move around, you'll need to be careful you don't trip on the multiple USB cables necessary to power the device. The HTC Vive, by comparison, will get a wireless peripheral later this year called TPCAST. There's a third-party peripheral called KwikVR due to launch this month that supports both the Rift and the Vive, but KwikVR says it will add just under 12ms of latency to the minimal lag that's already built into the Rift. TPCast, by comparison, claims it will add less than 2ms to the Vive experience, which isn't enough to add any jutter or distortion to the end product.
It's not the only third-party wireless solution, however, and don't rule out Oculus announcing their own product later this year.
A headset developed jointly by Valve and smartphone manufacturer HTC, the Vive is currently the most popular of the high-end headsets. Like the Rift, it supports room-scale tracking through two wireless base stations and ships with two decent controllers with dual-stage triggers, trackpads and plenty of their own sensors. The Vive also has the benefit of a front-facing camera, which solves the awkward problem of trying to find your drink when you're immersed in VR.
There's a lot of subtle differences between the Vive and the Rift that you'll want to take note of. The Vive and Rift output at the same resolution, but the Vive has a larger vertical field of view than Oculus's offering. The extra visibility adds to the experience, but it's not cost-free: because the Vive is displaying an image over the same screen size, the taller field of view results in a slightly more pronounced screen-door effect (which is where the lines separating pixels become visible).
The Vive also shipped with Chaperone, a technology that scans your real-world space and displays a virtual grid to the user in-game. It's designed to stop you from accidentally walking into your TV, wall, or table. The Vive also has the benefit of being part of a more open platform, and there are nearly double the amount of Vive-compatible games on Steam compared to the Rift. And to further ensure you don't miss real life when you're in VR, HTC has an app that flicks notifications from your phone through to your Vive's dashboard.
Like the Rift, the Vive requires users be tethered to a base station via a USB cable. It's far from ideal, and the VR experience will be massively improved once the TPCast wireless receiver launches later this year. HTC has also announced that it will support full body tracking with two trackers placed on top of the users' feet. The trackers can be used in other ways though, so expect some virtual guns and Rock Band-style guitars in the near future. The Vive's Deluxe Audio Strap (due out Q2 2017) will also add integrated audio and a more rigid strap, which should resolve some of the comfort issues people had with the original model.
What VR experience you get will depend on how much you pay. If you just want to dive into a virtual world for as little as possible, there's the Google Cardboard viewer. As the name implies, it's largely built out of cardboard and is designed to work with any smartphone on the market.
The selling point of Cardboard is that it's absurdly cheap - the viewers can be shipped flat in minuscule packaging, allowing people to experience VR without shelling thousands on a high-end headset and PC. But the quality of the experience wildly varies, and due to the low-end cost you still have to deal with a low resolution and a smaller focal range. Some of the games also require a separate Bluetooth controller, which not everyone has.
If you want to see what some of the Cardboard experiences are like, YouTube has an auto-generated playlist of stereoscopic 360 VR films that you can view on a regular screen here. As for the games, Chair in a Room is a little hidden item puzzle game with a dark storyline. There's also a curious app called TrinusVR, which lets you play games on your PC in Google Cardboard.
Google Daydream View
Google's other foray into VR is called Google Cardboard, a headset made out of jersey fabric. It's exceedingly comfortable; perhaps the most comfortable headset on the market, thanks to the weight, lack of cables and the materials. And while it's still a device that leverages the power of your smartphone, it's a more powerful piece of kit and subsequently more powerful.
Available from £69 through Google or traditional retailers, Daydream ships with a Bluetooth motion controller that acts as a pointer that lets you control, interact and navigate your VR environment. Cecilia thought it was one of Daydream's best features, and it's great if you want to lie in bed and have your VR too.
Daydream's biggest flaw at the moment is a lack of content, particularly games. It only shipped in late November, and at launch it was only supported by the Google Pixel and Pixel XL. This year's lineup of flagship and medium-tier phones are supporting Daydream, however, and as it becomes compatible with more devices the range of available content will increase, too.
Built in conjunction with Oculus, Gear VR has been through a few iterations since it first shipped in 2015. The current model has a field of view roughly on par with PSVR, USB-C and micro-USB connectors for support with multiple Samsung devices, and a darker tint to reduce reflections and glare on the final image. The 2560 x 1440 resolution is pretty decent, although the refresh rate is capped to 60Hz
The Gear VR has a flat trackpad on the side of the headset, along with back and home keys. It's akin to how you'd use your phone normally, although having your elbow raised all the time while playing EVE: Gunjack or Darknet can get tiring.
Gear VR's biggest advantage is content, with hundreds of games, experiences and support for streaming services like Netflix. Your mileage might vary when it comes to watching a two or three-hour length feature in VR, but it's something everyone should try regardless.
The Samsung Gear VR, which supports Samsung phones from the Note 5 up to the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, is available for no more than £100 from local retailers.
Don't want to pay over close to £800 for a headset but want something more exhaustive and immersive than what your smartphone can deliver? PSVR is the answer: a £450 headset that leverages the PlayStation Camera and Move controllers (although those two don't ship with the base PSVR kit) as well as the power of your PS4 or PS4 Pro. It comes with integrated audio, which is essential for selling the VR experience, and works via HDMI.
It's an incredibly well engineered piece of hardware. PSVR doesn't have the resolution of the Rift, Vive, OSVR, but it's actually the most comfortable and smartly engineered of the three headsets. Whereas the Vive and the Rift both strap themselves to the front of your face, the PSVR wraps around your skull with a plastic ring. There's a knob on the back that lets you move the headset forward and back, which is immensely useful for users with glasses or getting the focus right. The interior has comfortable soft rubber, and the backing of Sony means the PSVR lineup is well stocked with exclusives and ports.
Rather than using a series of wireless base stations around the room, PSVR tracks the user through the PlayStation Camera. The single camera is pretty good for just tracking the head, although Kirk found that the tracking on the Move controllers wasn't as consistent an experience as games that relied on the regular PS4 controller.
There are plenty of VR titles for PSVR, ranging from the rail-shooter Until Dawn spin-off, the remake of Battlezone and the upcoming co-op sci-fi shooter Farpoint. But you can play regular titles while wearing PSVR: the headset converts into "cinematic" mode, which is like playing a game with a cinema-sized screen in front of you. It was good enough that I could play Destiny for hours without too much exhaustion, although the nature of VR means that some objects, HUD elements and text in the periphery of the screen will be slightly blurred until you turn your head to directly focus at it.
But that's not the only thing you can do with PSVR. Provided your PS4 is close enough, you can actually use it to play games on your PC as well. The head tracking doesn't work, and you're totally on your own when it comes to comfort. But we were able to get the PC versions of DOOM and F1 2016 working through the headset, and other users were able to get cinematic mode working on the Xbox One as well.
While these are the main headsets, they're not the only ones. There's also a range of alternatives on the horizon, with improved specs, support for augmented reality and more.
LG's SteamVR Prototype: Shown off at GDC, LG's current development uses two OLED panels and leverages Valve's room-tracking tech. The resolution for each eye is 1440x1280, a slightly superior resolution than the Rift or the Vive. The field of view (at 12mm from the eyes) is 110 degrees, although it also has the ability to shift the display forward and backwards, which makes it easier for people wearing glasses.
The lenses inside the kit are refractive, as opposed to the fresnel lenses found in the Rift and the Vive. The whole unit is also powered by a single USB-C cable, which is a nice alternative. There's also a second button on LG's controllers, which are similar in shape and design to the Vive but with an additional button. Another curious change is that the panels in LG's headset are horizontal.
Tested played around with it at GDC recently, and you can see it in action above. There's no ETA on LG's headsets, but given the company's expertise in display technology it should be an interesting addition to the VR market.
Project Alloy: It's not the final name, but already Intel's reference model are looking interesting. It uses two RealSense cameras to map the user's environment and, apart from a single wire needed for those who want to record gameplay, is completely wireless thanks to a battery at the back of the headset.
It's a long way off from a final release, and we don't know whether it'll support SteamVR or Rift content, or whether developers have to code entirely new experiences for Alloy. Developer kits will become available from the second quarter of 2017, but it's a window into a wireless VR future. If you want to know more, Gizmodo's Michael tried some Project Alloy demos at CES earlier this year.
OSVR: Sporting a 2160 x 1200 OLED panel with a 90hz refresh rate, an 110o approx. field of view and support for controllers over Bluetooth, Razer's push into VR is based around the open-source model. It's got support for SteamVR, so content isn't a problem, and it'll be interesting to see what developers do with OSVR given that the platform is so open. One of the variants, for instance, uses Leap Motion technology to foster natural interactions by tracking the movement of your hands. (OSVR doesn't ship with touch controllers, like the Rift or Vive.)
Zero Latency have already begun using OSVR for their real-life experiences, and Razer has partnered up with Leap Motion and Manus VR to develop specific hand tracking gloves. You can invest in OSVR right now, although it'll probably be a year or two before the first consumer release model starts shipping. The base HDK2 model is available for $400/£319, which is significantly less than a Rift or Vive package, but you're also paying to be an early tester of sorts.
StarVR: Pitching itself as a panoramic headset, StarVR has perhaps the most impressive specs of any headset right now. Created by Starbreeze Studios (Payday 2, Dead by Daylight, Syndicate and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay) and backed by Acer, StarVR outputs a 5120x1440 across dual 5.5" displays.
It won't be in the hands of consumers for a while, though. IMAX has bought the first batch of StarVR devices for their VR cinematic experiences. It'll be interesting to see what developers can do with the increased field of view and the higher resolution, and by the time it becomes more available the regular gaming PC should be a lot more capable of outputting graphics at 5K.
Microsoft Hololens: Microsoft demoed some of its virtual reality headsets in the middle of last year, with manufacturers like Dell, Lenovo, HP and ASUS relying on what the company called "inside-out tracking". But the real crown jewel is the Hololens devkit, which leverages augmented reality to project holographic images.
Windows 10 will get an update later this year that will enable the Windows Holographic platform, and HoloLens development kits went on sale late last year for £2,719. It's a long way from changing the lives of gamers, although the Minecraft demo at E3 2015 still remains one of the coolest things done on a stage with video games.
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