Virtual Reality: The Future Is Here If You’ve Got the Cash

Germany Gadget Show Samsung

Facebook, Google, HTC, Samsung, Valve, Sony—all these companies are trying to make virtual reality happen. For real, this time. Not like those crappy VR mall arcades you may remember from the 1990s. If you can spare the cash, the technology is here, and it’s pretty mind-blowing. 

The Oculus Rift. Let’s start with this one, since, if you follow tech at all, it’s probably the first VR headset you heard about. Its wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and controversial acquisition by Facebook in 2014 strongly indicated that this device could be the one to make virtual reality stick. Once people got the Rift in their hands (and on their heads), it became apparent that this technology is the way of the future. If the folks in these videos are to be believed, virtual reality can make you feel as if you’re actually, say, riding a roller coaster despite your not moving at all. Lots of potential for some terrifying horror experiences, too.

Oculus Rift (Flickr)

But the truly scary thing about the Rift is the price. The headset alone is $600. Again, a quick glance through the videos on our Topics page shows you that many gamers who were hoping for this to be their next big purchase aren’t too happy about that. It’s half the cost of a new computer right there.

Fortunately, if you click over to our Topics tab on the Oculus Rift page, you’ll see a few more affordable options: the Samsung Gear VR (see feature photo, at top) and Google Cardboard—which is literally a piece of cardboard you stick your Android phone into to make a very low-budget headset. Samsung’s Gear VR also uses a phone, but exploring that device’s Topics page reveals there’s a little more going on in its headset than in Google’s corrugated contraption. The Gear VR contains a dedicated IMU (inertial measurement unit) that’s more accurate and better calibrated than the one inside a smartphone, which is what Google Cardboard relies on.

I got to try out a Gear VR at New York Comic Con last year, and I have to say it’s impressive. There’s no noticeable lag when you move your head around to explore the scene, and that alone is enough to make you forget where you are. The image was a little blurry, however, as if I were wearing glasses that hadn’t been cleaned in a month. As immersive as the experience was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was just holding a smartphone up to my eyes. But hey, at $99, you get what you pay for.

I also got a chance to use the Rift at Comic Con, and I can totally see the reason for the high price. Partially developed by Doom programmer John Carmack, this headset employs the most impressive tech available. The picture was sharp and detailed, and I could look all around the scene with no lag at all. Everything about it felt faster, more responsive and more immersive than Gear VR. If only it didn’t cost six times as much….

HTC Vive. Competing with the Rift is this device, partially created by acclaimed game developer Valve—known for the Half-Life series, DOTA 2 and the game distribution platform Steam. Looking into how the two headsets connect reveals that Valve’s SteamVR interface will work with both and that both will have the same refresh rate (so there shouldn’t be any nausea-inducing lag). Thus there also won’t be much software that’s exclusive to either one, so buying one shouldn’t lock you out of (too many) experiences developed for the other. There can’t be too much exclusivity, since these companies desperately want VR to catch on. For that to happen, their stuff needs to work on as many devices as possible.

That’s not to say the Vive and the Rift are identical. Watching a few videos on our Topics page reveals some pretty drastic differences in how HTC and Valve expect you to use their device. On the Rift, the demos largely involve things happening to you: You’re on a roller coaster or in a room where scary stuff happens, and at most you use an Xbox controller to walk through an environment and use the Rift itself to look around. But the Vive focuses much more on your literally moving around a room and miming the actions you’re performing in-game. With sensors on the walls and two handheld controllers that look like something out of Star Trek, you walk to the location of a virtual object and manipulate it with your hands. It’s amazing, and I desperately want to get my own hands on it! While the screens inside the Vive are reportedly cheaper and offer lower resolution than the Rift’s, the Vive set includes the required motion controllers and base station sensors. It costs $800.

PlayStation VR. So is there an affordable version of this technology that doesn’t involve strapping a cell phone to your face? Maybe. Sony is testing the waters with PlayStation VR. Watching a few of its videos, I’d call it a middle ground between the Vive and the Rift. Since it pairs with the PS4, you can sit on your couch and look around with the headset while you direct your character’s movement with the controller. But you can also use the PlayStation Move (Sony’s attempt at Nintendo’s Wii motion controls) to get around the room and use objects with your hands.

Virtual Reality Vision Summit
PlayStation VR (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

Exploring the connections between PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift reveals that at least one game will be developed for both. That’s a hopeful sign that perhaps more experiences will be developed for all three headsets—which is a good thing for PS4 owners, because theirs will likely be the cheapest non-phone-based VR device. The PS4 is significantly less powerful than the PC required to use the Rift or the Vive, so Sony can afford to use cheaper components in the headset. PlayStation VR may cost as much as a second video game console, but it would still be significantly cheaper than its two competitors.

Preorders for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are open, and all three new devices are planned for release this year, with the Rift coming first on March 28, followed by the Vive on April 5. We’re living in the future, and some truly awe-inspiring experiences are headed our way—if we can afford them.

Feature photo: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber