What is the best place to start with Virtual Reality?
Virtual Reality is something that is either going to revolutionize our world in ways not even smartphones have been able to, or it’s going to be the technological equivalent of Gretchen from Mean Girls, trying to make “Fetch” happen. Some people have a basic understanding of the technology behind Virtual Reality but aren’t up to date with the current consumer-level products available out there while others might’ve heard of the products available but might not understand what Virtual Reality itself is. Virtual Reality is an extraordinary shift in the way humans experience the digital world.
VR, short for Virtual Reality, allows people to be fully immersed in an artificial environment on a screen, which is usually delivered through head-mounted hardware that tracks the user’s body movements. Virtual Reality promises to do away with the annoying middle layer of the input machines of computers altogether (i.e. the screens and the mouses and the keyboards), just like Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality’s sibling technology, does. But our topic of contention today is Virtual Reality, not Augmented Reality, so we’ll talk about AR at a future date.
The current life cycle of virtual reality began when the earliest prototypes of the Oculus Rift showed up at the E3 stage back in 2012 but the idea behind Virtual Reality has been in the human subconsciousness for almost a century now.
Back in 2012, id Software co-founder and virtual-reality enthusiast, John Carmack, came to the annual E3 video game trade show with a special surprise: He had borrowed a prototype of a headset created by a 19-year-old VR enthusiast named Palmer Luckey and hacked it to run a VR version of the game Doom. The headset was covered with duct tape, and a strap taken from a pair of ski goggles was all that held it to your head, but it worked. When people put on the headset, they found themselves surrounded by the 3D graphics they’d normally see on a TV or monitor. They weren’t just playing Doom—they were inside it. Things moved very quickly after that. Luckey’s company, Oculus, raised more than $2 million on Kickstarter to produce the headset, which he called the Oculus Rift. In 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus for nearly $3 billion.
In 2016, the first generation of consumer-friendly VR headsets arrived at the market, although they needed to be connected to other hardware via cables to work properly instead of being able to function on their own. The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift needed to be connected to powerful PCs and the PlayStation VR system needed to be connected to the PS4 system. In 2018, the first true standalone VR headset, i.e. the Oculus Go, was released to the public that could function on its own without needing to be connected to other hardware. Its successor, the Oculus Quest, went on to become the highest-selling Virtual Reality headset to date. Other companies soon followed with their own headsets, like the Valve Index, the Pimax, the Windows Mixed Reality Headsets, the Nintendo Labo VR, and many others.
If you don’t already own a gaming PC that meets the required specifications, PC VR can quickly become a very expensive option.
Our recommendations for Virtual Reality headsets are the following, based upon different budgets –
- The Valve Index ($1000) – The Valve Index is Valve’s first VR headset that offers what most consider to be the most outstanding VR experience for a very high price. It has the best optics and strong flexibility. The Index controllers provide increased hand and environment interactions over other controllers, and it’s one of the best headsets on the market. But it’s also extremely expensive. The big question, for most people, is whether the huge quality-of-life improvements and features are enough to make the Index worth another $600-$700 over other systems.
- Oculus Quest 2 ($300) – The Quest 2 is one of the most versatile headsets available on the market. For $300, you get a headset that requires no other equipment and offers some of the best experiences and games on any VR platform. If you’re okay with logging in via your Facebook account to use the headset, the Quest 2 has some huge benefits. You can take it anywhere with yourself, use it anywhere and let anyone else try the headset in a matter of seconds. But that’s not all – if you do have a VR-ready PC, you can use Oculus Link to connect the Quest to your computer via USB C or use the Oculus Air Link to connect the Quest to your computer via wireless networking and enjoy any experiences a Rift can run on your Quest while you remain tethered. The Quest offers the best of both worlds. That being said, because the Quest is a standalone headset, all of the components are in the headset itself. This makes the headset front heavy and not super ideal for long play sessions, although the Quest 2 has managed to improve on that issue compared to its predecessors.
- PlayStation VR ($400) – The PSVR system is a good option for someone who already has a PlayStation console (both the PS4 and PS5 work) and wants an easy way to use VR with the hardware they already own. The PSVR system has one of the best VR libraries available, with some amazing exclusive experiences on it. However, it also has some technological limitations. A lot of the PSVR system uses very old hardware and peripherals, and it shows. The tracking, which uses a PlayStation camera sitting below or above your TV, is not up to par with other more modern tracking systems, and won’t be able to offer the same level of graphical quality as other systems. Although it is a good option, we’re waiting for some form of the PSVR 2, which has been teased by Sony a few months back. If you don’t already own a Playstation system and you want to keep your system supported for the upcoming future, one of the other two mentioned headsets might be a better option for you.
These are our 3 main recommendations for Virtual Reality headsets for the readers. Besides, the way things are going, there are going to be a lot better options coming soon for us. Oculus is expected to unveil their next Quest system in the near future, while Valve is also being rumored to have a big revision to their system coming soon. Whether you want to dip your toes in now or wait for a better system, is up to you though.