It's been around for a while now, but recently, virtual reality has been gaining a lot of momentum and is finally looking set to become big business. If you want to start exploring this new form of 3D art, there's an amazing variety of hardware to help you get started. Here are some of the best VR headsets around to help you decide which one is best for you.
The first untethered holographic computer, HoloLens overlays different CG elements onto the transparent screen in front of each eye to create real-looking 3D holograms. HoloLens is perfect for experiences that benefit from mixing the real world with the virtual – from seeing how a chair would look in your living room to highly empathetic social experiences such as meeting a hero or figure from the news.
HoloLens can really read a room – not only can it identify what an object is, it can tell what material it’s made from. It features 12 sensors including four environment-understanding cameras and four microphones, and includes spatial sound, gaze tracking, gesture input and voice support.
02. Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift requires a wired connection to a high-spec (and often very expensive) gaming PC, running Windows 7 or higher, but the payoff is the ability to create processing-heavy interactive experiences and games. When it first launched, the Rift couldn’t do room-scale VR (so users had to sit, or stand still), but the recent update of an additional low-latency constellation tracking system means users can now walk around – just be aware, not all users will have this capability.
The same applies to the newly launched Touch controllers, which can be purchased to add greater interactivity. The Rift’s integrated VR audio system is excellent, and is widely considered to be better than its competitor, the HTC Vive.
03. HTC Vive
Much like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive needs to be tethered to a powerful desktop GPU – but the result is the ability to create immersive, active VR. One huge benefit is the ability to move around space (a minimum of 2x1.5m is recommended by HTC). It works by using two sensors positioned in the corner of the room that track the whereabouts of the headset by sweeping with lasers.
The Vive comes with two handheld controllers, meaning greater capability for menus, navigation and gesture recognition. The headset also sports a front-facing camera, giving designers the ability to build the real world into games or experiences.
04. Playstation VR
A more affordable option than the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR is tethered to a PS4 rather than an expensive PC gaming rig. The downside of this is less power – and so potentially, less immersion. The PlayStation Camera tracks nine light points on the headset so room-scale VR is technically possible, but as Sony has opted for one sensor instead of two, the tracking is not as good as on the HTC Vive.
Although, at present, PlayStation VR content is more gaming-focused, the headset’s huge sales figures (745,000 units since its launch in October – well ahead of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift) makes it a serious proposition for the mass market.
05. Samsung Gear VR
Powered by Samsung Galaxy smartphones, Samsung Gear VR effectively splits the phone screen in two to create 3D visuals, to offer affordable, wire-free virtual reality. Lacking the power of a high-spec PC, Gear VR is a natural home for 360-video (passive content) or semi-active experiences that require moving the head to hotspots, rather than hugely interactive projects.
Originally launched in 2013, the Gear VR is the go-to VR platform for many – it’s widely understood by the public and a large number of experiences already exist for it. This has been boosted by a partnership with Facebook, bringing the Oculus VR store to the platform. A recent upgrade to the headset has improved the size of the lenses to widen the field of view, making the Gear VR’s experiences feel more immersive than the original launch model.
06. Google Daydream
Google Daydream uses a phone (such as Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL) to power VR experiences, but unlike Samsung’s ‘walled-garden’ Gear VR, is not exclusive to Google’s own phones – it works with the Moto Z, and is expected to support other Android devices in future. The Daydream is best suited to passive (think 360-video and animation) and semi-active content, although the power of the Google Pixel and Pixel XL is not to be scoffed at: both possess Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processors and an embedded Adreno 530 graphics chip.
The headset comes with a handheld controller, for easier navigation than with the Samsung Gear VR’s on-headset buttons. The cheapest headset featured here, its fabric-covered design is made for comfort. There’s not much content for Daydream yet, but given the cost – not to mention partnerships with Netflix VR and HBO NOW VR – there’s a good opportunity to make your mark using this tech.