virtual reality

VR: A buyer’s guide to virtual reality headsets

By Kitty Knowles 7 December 2015
Summary

Want to buy a virtual reality headset for yourself, a friend, or family member? Rewind founder Solomon Rogers explains the pros & cons of 9 key devices.

Unless you work in tech – or you’re a particularly curious person – it’s unlikely you’ve been able to get you hands on a virtual reality headset yet.

So far even hardcore VR fans will only have had access to prototype models known as ‘developer kits’, but that’s about to change.

This week, after much anticipation, the first mainstream virtual reality headset is due to be released to the public, the HTC Vive.

As we move into the new year you can also expect big brands like the Oculus Rift and Sony’s PlayStation VR (previously known as Project Morpheus) to follow suit.

But which brand should you try or buy? Do the big three live up to the hype? And what if you’re not in the market to shell out hundreds of pounds?

Having developed dozens of flawless virtual reality experiences; from a Björk music video, to a 360° Strictly Come Dancing experience, simulations and games, Rewind founder Solomon Rogers knows all about what makes a good headset.

The Memo asked the VR expert to talk us through the nine key VR headsets, starting the simplest smartphone-run devices, right through to the big three: the Oculus Rift, Morpheus, and Vive. 

– Mobile-compatible headsets

“There are dozens of headsets made of plastic or cardboard with no technology in them at all,” explains Rogers. “These experience are all power by your mobile phone, and the benefit is that they’re very cost effective.”

“An iPhone, or Android phone has the power to run really good 360 video, and are very lightweight fun VR games, but they use the gyroscope of the phone to know which way you’re looking, which is okay, but it’s not really VR.

“They are more like gateway devices to get into VR.”

Cheap mobile devices

1) Google Cardboard

A Google Cardboard VR device. Pic: Rewind.

“At the very bottom end of a VR headset is the Google Cardboard. It is literally made out of cardboard, it runs from a mobile phone and has a button which allows you to touch the smartphone screen.

“It costs around two or three dollars, and Google are pushing this really hard because it works with all of their products – the New York Times just sent 1.1 million of these to every single one of their subscribers.”

Upside: “The interesting thing about the Google Cardboard is they gave away the plans for free. So anyone can make them for themselves. It’s very cheap, very accessible, and there’s also it’s really letting people play with the technology.”

Downside: “The downside is it is made of cardboard, so it’s not very robust. After a few uses you’ll need another one.”

2.) The Altergaze

The Altergaze 3D-printed VR headset. Pic: Rewind.

“The Altergaze is a 3D printed headset. You get the plans for free, and if you have a 3D printer you can just print one out.”

Upside: “You design it and make it yourself, which is kinda cool, and you can completely customise it.”

Downside: “You need a 3D printer.”

– Decent mobile-devices

The three mobile devices people are paying attention to right now are the Merge, the Freefly, and the ZEISS VR One.

“360 video is perfect for mobile versions, but when you do move within a virtual universe it’s still going to be a simple gaming quality.”

3) The Merge: £49.99

The Merge VR headset. Pic: Rewind.

“The Merge is being sold in UK GAME stores, and having it on the high street means it’s is going to get picked up.”

Upside: “It’s made of foam, so it’s very lightweight, and it’s very flexible and it fits on anyone’s head. It also has this thing called adjustable IPD, that’s Interpupillary Distance, to change how far apart your eyes are.

“It also has two buttons at the top which allows you to interact with a mobile phone screen. At fifty pounds, it’s very accessible.”

Downside: “Being made of foam tends to feel less premium.”

4) The Freefly: £55

The Firefly VR headset. Pic: Rewind.

“Again the Freefly uses a mobile phone: this is expected to be in John Lewis later in December, so the idea that as my granny goes in to buy her Christmas presents she could pick up one of these.

Upside: This has a slightly bigger aperture, and is also a little bit easier to line up. The main difference is this is a solid plastic device, and it feels very much like a grown up product.  Plus this one comes with a little bluetooth controller (the Merge is expected to get one later).

Downside: The controller is a plus, and the Merge is currently more comfortable than the Freefly.

5) ZEISS VR One: £125

The Zeiss VR One headset. Pic: Rewind.

“This is exactly the same principle as the Merge and Freefly, but it’s made by ZEISS, a big premium company.

Upside: “It looks like an expensive product, it’s very comfortable, and it has amazing optics because it’s ZEISS.”

Downside: “It’s really expensive, even though there’s no technology in it at all.”

– Mobile device with built-in tracking

6) Samsung Gear VR: £65

The Gear VR headset, which uses Oculus technology. Pic: Rewind.

“Just before we get to the high-end pure VR headsets, there’s the Gear VR. Again this works with a mobile, but this one’s specifically made by Samsung and has a deal with Oculus…”

Upside: “When you dock your phone you’re actually plugging it into the device, using the same tracking technology as the Oculus Rift. This means that it knows where you’re looking, and when you turn your head fast it turns just as quick as you do. You feel far more comfortable and more immersed in the content.

“The Gear VR also gives you a proper touchpad with back buttons and volumes, so you don’t have to work at how to touch the mobile phone.”

Downside: “It only works with Samsung phones released in 2015: the Note, the Note 4, the S6, the S6 Plus. It’s an incredibly good device, but if you buy it with a phone it’s going to cost you a lot of money.”

– Premium headsets

“Of the proper VR headsets, there are three flavors coming out: the Oculus Rift, Valve Vive by HTC, and the Sony Morpheus. All of them need a computer to power them, a PC or Mac or Playstation 4.

“The big three all have great headsets, really accurate tracking technology, and positional tracking technology as well, which use cameras you set up in your room.

“And they’ve all got hands or tools that you can hold and they know where they are, so you have the ability to interact with the world.”

“They gives you the ability to be in a world with a quality of graphics that mobile devices can’t even touch.”

7) Oculus Rift: around £300-£400, to be released early 2016

The Oculus Rift VR headset. Pic: Rewind.

“The big one that everyone talks about is the Oculus Rift, which started as a Kickstarter and was sold to Facebook for $2 bn. They’re doing very well.

Upside: “Not only does the headset know which way it’s looking, but there’s camera devices you set up in your room that look back to track where it is in the space. It also comes with the handsets called Oculus Touch.

“You can point, you can grab, you can pick things up, and you can hold things.”.

Downside: “The space they want you to work in is about two by two meters, which is about plenty really, but not as wide as the Vive or Playstation VR.”

8) HTC Valve Vive: rumoured £300-£500, to be released December 2015

The HTC Valve Vive. Pic: Rewind.

“The next one up is the Valve Vive by HTC. Again it’s a great headset, it’s very comfortable. It comes with two controllers that know where they are, but instead of a camera tracking where the headset is, it flips the script. The headset itself is using all these little sensors and lasers to looking outwards at where the world is.”

This means it can be used in a much bigger space if you choose. You can make a 5m by 5m space, and you can crawl around, and climb things and stuff.”

Downside: “I actually personally think that the HTC Vive is currently the best VR headset.”

9) Sony Morpheus, or Playstation VR: price TBC

Playstation VR headset, previously known as the Project Morpheus. Pic: Sony.

“The final one that’s coming out is Sony’s Playstation VR. It’s a headset, that’s similar to the Oculus and Vive, that plugs directly into the Playstation 4.

“It has ‘hands’ by Playstation Eye, and it tracks so it knows where you are.

“The real big benefit of the Sony one other than its slightly different functionality and slightly more comfortable wear, is that because it plugs into the PS4 it has access to, it will be the experience will be the same across all devices.”

“The other thing is, there’s millions and millions of people with Playstation 4s already in their homes and they want new content. Playstation VR is going to have a really good chance of taking up the VR mantle.”

So what’s the best?

“For me, the HTC Vive is the best VR headset, but Oculus will win out in the short term because they’ve done a very good job in getting everyone talking about them, Because of its scale the Playstation VR will have a huge impact when it finally gets released.”