For those fascinated by virtual reality, this is an exciting time. Every major system that people have been waiting for for the last year or more is finally on the market. And that could make for some joyous moments for those hoping to find a VR rig under their tree (or in their stocking) this holiday season.
While there have been predictions that not that many people will be giving VR systems as gifts this year, that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fun. There are a plethora of choices at every price point, and no matter which you choose, your lucky gift recipient will get a view of what VR can be, albeit at very different levels of quality.
Virtual reality takes users to another world. Strap on a headset and you visit places you might otherwise never see. Imagine being in the jump seat in a Blue Angels jet, or on stage at a Cirque du Soleil show. Or think about being able to travel anywhere on earth just by clicking a few buttons. VR makes all of that, and so much more, possible.
Every VR system requires either a mobile phone or a computer. And for the moment, Apple users are more or less out of luck (with one exception). Most VR currently works only with Android and PCs, though lots of people are hoping this will change soon. So before you start exploring systems, make sure the recipient has the appropriate hardware (unless you want to spend additional dollars for that as well).
You can spend anywhere from $15 to well over $1,000, but you get what you pay for. There are essentially four different levels on the VR hardware spectrum, and the prices rise sharply the further up you go.
For just $15, you can buy a Google Cardboard, a basic VR headset that works with nearly any smartphone (including iPhone). Download the Cardboard app and/or apps from content creators and aggregators like Jaunt, and the user will be off and running.
The Cardboard experience is about as basic as VR gets. The headset itself is literally made from cardboard, has no straps, and feels as inexpensive as it is. Still, millions of people have used Cardboard. Your recipient might enjoy the 360-degree videos that place the user in the center and allow them to look in every direction. There are countless offerings available for YouTube 360 or Facebook 360.
The next category is mobile VR, where the major players are Google’s new Daydream View headset and Samsung’s Gear VR.
The Daydream View, just released last month, is the only major mobile VR system to include a handheld controller—in this case, a small device that lets you point and click at numerous choices inside dozens of VR experiences.
Though the headset costs $79 (and is free with some carrier plans), it does require an Android N phone. For the moment, that means you have to have Google’s own Pixel, which costs between $650 and $770. Google promises that there will soon be more Android N phones coming from a variety of manufacturers, and that before long, the operating system will be available on mid-priced phones. For now, though, using Daydream is a pricey proposition unless you already have a Pixel.
For $79, though, you get a pretty solid VR experience. Google built new versions of several of its most popular tools for Daydream (YouTube, Street View, Play Movies, and Photos), as did the Wall Street Journal, Hulu, HBO, Netflix, and the New York Times. Dozens of Daydream apps are expected by year’s end.
It’s also a lightweight headset and super easy to use, as it launches VR immediately once connected, regardless of whether you placed the device in any specific place.
The other major player in mobile VR is Samsung’s Gear VR. Priced at $99, it requires a high-end Samsung phone. And since it’s been on the market for more than a year, utilizing software built by Facebook-owned Oculus, the Gear VR has a much larger library than Daydream.
What it doesn’t have is the controller or the lightweight headset, and it doesn’t have that wow factor that would suggest it’s at the center of a major tech company’s VR ambitions. Still, the Gear VR is a terrific entry point for the virtual-reality curious. It’s got that library and a broader list of phones with which it’s compatible, making it likelier that your gift recipient already owns the right phone.
In the middle of the VR spectrum is Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR), which costs $399 and works with the PlayStation 4 (PS4). It’s one of the most game-centric VR systems on the market.
The PSVR is compatible with the PS4, which makes it an appealing option, considering how many people already own one (Sony has sold tens of millions of them). A PS4 costs about $300.
The PlayStation VR comes with features that are a major step up from the entry-level systems, including handheld controllers, better quality graphics, and richer virtual reality experiences. Many developers have built games exclusively for PSVR, such as Enhance Games’ Rez Infinite. There are dozens of other titles available for the system as well. In short, a solid middle-of-the-road choice.
It would be easy to say they are similar in quality and features, except for one thing: The $599 Rift does not come standard with handheld controllers that make VR experiences fully immersive and interactive.
The Rift does come with an Xbox One controller that gives you access to dozens of games and other goodies, but it limits how you interact and engage with the VR. To enjoy the full potential of the Rift, you’d need to buy a set of Oculus’s new Touch Controllers, which cost $199. An additional $79 will buy you one more sensor, which maximizes the Rift’s potential–but even without it, it’s still pretty great.
The Touch Controllers incorporate users’ hands and allow for some of the richest, most fun VR experiences possible. You can enjoy sculpting tools along the lines of Oculus’s own Medium; the endlessly entertaining graffiti simulator Kingspray; or some of the best games for VR, such as Dead and Buried and I Expect You to Die. At launch, there are more than 50 titles available for Touch.
Here’s the thing, though. The Rift also requires a gaming-quality PC that can run you less than $500 for a bare-bones model or $1,000 for a superior one. Here again, it’s best to find out what equipment your Rift giftee already has.
That advice applies equally to the $799 Vive, which also requires a gaming-quality PC.
As with the Rift, there is a growing library of content for Vive, some of which—like Google Earth VR or Google’s Tilt Brush—is spectacular. Unlike Oculus’s system, though, the Vive comes standard with two handheld controllers that allow for immediate room-scale VR experiences—meaning, you can move around in a space as big as a small room. That opens up an array of opportunities for developers to make lush VR experiences.
So Vive has an edge in terms of out-of-the-box VR power (which Rift owners can match with additional investment in hardware). On the other hand, the Rift is easier to use and has a more refined design. Either way, both systems offer experiences that can be breathtaking in a way that lower-end systems simply aren’t. If the price tag doesn’t scare you, you can be pretty confident about springing for either model. When you strap on a Vive or a Rift with Touch, you are playing with the best consumer VR on the market today. It’s unlikely any competitors will succeed in one-upping the Vive or Rift in the coming year.