Virtual reality is here – 2016 is the year when the likes of Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive take the medium mainstream. And it’s well on its way.
For the uninitiated, VR is an immersive experience in which your head movements are tracked in a three-dimensional world, making it ideally suited to games and even movies.
Explained: How does VR actually work?
While VR was a non-starter back in the 90s, developers are now creating mind-blowing experiences that look set to revolutionise gaming and entertainment.
But what are the best VR headsets and which one should you choose? We’ve put together the definitive selection of the most gob-smackingly awesome devices just waiting to be strapped to your face.
Oculus Rift is the headset that started the current hysteria. Developed by Palmer Luckey, funded via Kickstarter and snapped up by Facebook for a cool $2 billion, the Rift plugs into your computer’s DVI and USB ports and tracks your head movements to provide 3D imagery on its stereo screens.
The consumer edition Rift uses a 2160 x 1200 resolution, working at 233 million pixels per second, with a 90Hz refresh rate. It’s high tech stuff, which matches the HTC Vive for refresh rate, but lags behind PlayStation VR. However, given its access to the power of latest PCs, it will be pushing a lot more pixels than Sony’s headset.
Essential reading: Best Oculus Rift games
Oculus Rift has had some shipping delays, but the headset is finally arriving in homes. The Oculus Touch controllers however, are slated to arrive later in the year, so you’ll have to settle for an Xbox One controller in the box. Be sure to read our definitive Oculus Rift review for more details.
The HTC Vive, is the Steam VR headset made in collaboration with Valve, the makers of legendary gaming series Half Life, and it hit shops in April.
The HTC Vive plugs into PCs and work with Valve’s mammoth gaming ecosystem. It packs in 70 sensors to offer 360 degree head-tracking as well as a 90Hz refresh rate; the stat that’s key to keeping down latency, which is the technical term for the effect that causes motion sickness. Thankfully, that wasn’t an issue in our review time.
Essential reading: Best HTC Vive games
However, the key to the HTC Vive’s success is the Lighthouse room tracking that enables you to move around with the headset on. It means mounting some sensors in your home, but the effect is next level. Check out our HTC Vive review to see how.
Virtual reality: Fooling your senses into seeing something that’s not there. Making the unreal real.
The technology has been percolating in fits and starts for the past 20 years. Now, it’s not only here, it’s the next frontier, and companies from Facebook to Google to Microsoft know that VR is likely the next step up from phones, tablets and computer screens. They’re all jockeying to dominate the next big computing platform.
Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard were just the start. The HTC Vive (coming soon) is the big competitor. And PlayStation VR, coming in October, may well be VR’s mass market breakthrough. But the real race begins here and now, with the Oculus Rift.
Close your eyes and step inside. Things are about to get weird.
I place the Oculus Rift on my head, stretching its spring-loaded frame onto my skull. The visor slides down over my eyes. The lenses fill with light. It feels like I’m wearing a set of ski goggles attached to a baseball cap — the most advanced baseball cap in the world.
For $600, it had better be. Not counting the hundreds I spent to upgrade my computer.
Inside the fabric-covered contraption, I see a computer-generated room. It’s not very striking at first. It’s a little bit grainy, like I’m looking through a fine mesh. My field of view seems a little small. But when I move my head, the room is all around me. Whichever way I look, or lean, or even crouch down, my perspective shifts as if I were actually there.
This is not like having a tiny TV strapped to my face. Nothing like the Google Glass or Virtual Boy of yore. This feels like I’ve inserted my head into another world.
Admittedly, it’s a world where I’m wearing a big, black goggle-cap that keeps me from seeing as clearly as I’d like. At least the straps are fairly comfortable and you only have to adjust them once.
The visual artifacts don’t always bug me. Like the drops of water on my car’s windshield on a rainy day, I usually find myself ignoring the slightly blurry vision and the glowing halos that constantly appear around any bright object in the world. Other times, they’re all I can think about.
Sometimes, I want to take off the helmet. To feel the wind on my face. But as soon as I rip it off, I’m no longer a bird. I’m just a dude, sitting in his apartment, with sweat on my brow.