2016 VR Smackdown

Virtual Reality is something that has somehow managed to simultaneously been a long time coming while also sneaking up on us. Movies like "The Lawnmower Man" and "The Matrix" kept us in constant reminder of what seemed like an impossible dream, like a virtual carrot that was constantly out of reach because of cost and technical limitations. Meanwhile, gamers were constantly teased and ultimately disappointed by half-hearted VR attempts like Virtual Boy and Virtuality VR pods found at the local mall. It just made the dream seem more impossible with every failed attempt.

Then, at E3 2012, a plucky startup named Oculus showed the world that VR’s time had finally come, and it was heralded in by gaming legend John Carmack. Actual, working, and fun VR was not only possible, but was coming soon, with legendary names in gaming guiding its development.

Four years later, virtual reality is actual reality, and not only that, there are many different levels of VR at wildly varying price points to choose from. What’s the difference between them, and how much should you invest in VR?

Strap on your headsets, make room on your floor, and put the pets outside, as Bfads.net dissects all the major and minor VR offerings in our VR Smackdown!

Virtual Reality Basics

Before we delve into the many VR offerings that are currently on the market, let’s first talk about the basics. What exactly virtual reality is, how it’s used, and cover some essential VR terminology.

Virtual reality is a way of immersing yourself inside a computer simulation. If you’ve ever played a video game before, it’s a way of putting yourself inside the game, and giving the illusion that the barrier between you and the in-game world is non-existent. To achieve this you typically wear a VR visor that blocks out the view of your surroundings and contains a screen that changes the view of the in-game world as you move your head around. This tricks your eyes and your mind into believing that you are no longer in your home; when you look down, you don’t see your floor, you see the floor of the game world, and when you look up, you don’t see your ceiling, you see the sky in the virtual world.

With that basic explanation out of the way, here are a couple of key points to keep in mind before you digitize yourself into the grid:

All VR Has Pre-Requisites – Every form of VR currently on the market requires other hardware to work. Some require a smartphone, some a gaming console, and some a high-end gaming PC. There are no all-inclusive VR solutions yest. Although many vendors are offering bundles that include all necessary hardware, these prices will be much higher than the ones we will highlight today.

VR Causes Motion Sickness - It won’t be the same for everyone, and some may not experience it at all, but when you try to trick your brain and your senses at the level VR does, sometimes it can make you feel ill. This can sometimes be overcome and just takes some getting used to, and for many, higher quality VR offers a better experience. Since this problem is very common, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to demo VR for yourself before spending a significant amount of money.

VR Hardware Specs – You’ll see a minimal amount of hardware spec comparison here and also in stores and advertisements. They are not very complicated, and if you’ve ever shopped for a HDTV, you’ve probably seen the same features, but here is a quick breakdown of what they mean.

  • Resolution – The number of pixels on the screen in the visor. The higher the pixel count, the sharper the image and the less likely you are to notice pixels while enjoying VR.
  • Refresh Rate – Just as in TVs, the higher the refresh rate, the smoother the motion of what you see while enjoying VR.
  • Field of View – Probably the most important spec, the field of view is the extent of the world that is visible to you without moving your head. The wider the field of view, the more natural VR feels as your peripheral vision and depth perception feel more like they do in the real world.
  • Room-scale VR – Virtual reality that not only tracks your head movement, but can follow your position inside the room. This allows you to physically walk around the virtual environment.

Google Cardboard - $14.99 (Requires Smartphone)

Google Cardboard

It may seem silly but the cheapest and easiest way to try VR out for yourself can be had for less than $15, and for sometimes as low as $5. Head over to the Google Cardboard Store and pick up an inexpensive housing for your Android smart phone. Download and launch the Google Cardboard App and slip your phone into the housing, and the integrated lenses will give you a cheap and easy VR experience. While this VR is not nearly as immersive as other options out there, it will definitely give you a better understanding of how VR works and whether or not you really want to invest a large sum of money to get some full blown VR gear.

There are plenty of Google Cardboard compatible VR apps on the Google Play store, everything from roller coasters, haunted houses, and space shooters, to cave exploration sims and skydiving games. The graphic fidelity and overall quality of the VR experience will largely depend on whether or not your phone is up to the task. Motion sensing, image quality, and framerate are all determined by the prowess of the hardware in your smart device. However, just because you don’t have the latest flagship phone to hit the market, doesn’t mean you can’t get a pretty good feel for what VR is all about.

Samsung Gear VR - $59.99 - $99.99 (Requires Galaxy Smartphone)

Samsung Gear VR

Samsung Gear VR is derided by many as simply a more expensive version of Google Cardboard, mainly because both require that you insert your phone into the VR visor. While that argument certainly holds merit, the Samsung VR offers a huge upgrade in VR experience by including actual hardware enhancements in the visor.

First, the Samsung VR works only with Samsung Galaxy phones, models S6 and newer (Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, Note 5, S6 Edge+, S6, S6 Edge), which is a deal breaker for some, but great if you happen to be one of the millions of Galaxy phone owners. Once inserted into the visor, your Galaxy phone plugs into a micro USB port that enables enhanced motion tracking and a touch interface that is built into the actual Gear VR headset that works seamlessly with the included Oculus software.

Speaking of software, one of the best things the Gear VR has going for it is the Oculus-curated software designed exclusively for Samsung VR. In addition to exclusive games, one of the most attractive apps available for Samsung Gear VR is Netflix. It may sound silly but having a virtual theater at your fingertips at any time does wonders for road trips, dorm rooms, hotel stays, or if you’d just rather lay in bed and enjoy a cinema-like experience.

If you have one of the Galaxy phones listed above and want a more visceral VR experience without spending hundreds on dedicated VR hardware, the Samsung Gear VR might fit the bill nicely.

Playstation VR Launch Bundle $499.99 (Requires Playstation 4 console)

Playstation VR

Playstation 4 owners can take a dramatic leap into VR with the Playstation VR Launch Bundle, which includes everything that PS4 gamers need to immerse themselves in the world of Playstation.

The price is steep compared to smart phone based VR, but Playstation VR is the lowest cost of entry for those who want a serious and substantial virtual reality experience. While the Playstation 4 VR might not have visuals that surpass or even meet a high end gaming PC and an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, it without a doubt delivers the most bang for the buck for those who want to get serious about VR without breaking the bank.'

The setup is simple. Gamers position the Playstation camera on front of their TV, hook up the cables and strap on the VR visor. The Playstation camera tracks the LED lights on the visor and on the PS Move controllers to detect motion. While this works great, because there are no LED lights on the back of the visor, it does not offer the true 360 degree motion tracking found in the Vive and Rift, and room-scale is not a possibility.

The real attraction for the starter bundle is not only the cost savings VS buying all these pieces separately, but the inclusion of what is arguably the killer app of the PlayStation VR -- the Playstation VR Worlds bundle disc. The VR Worlds title is available to buy separately but it really should be in the library of every Playstation VR owner. It’s the Wii Sports of Playstation VR, it shows all the capabilities of PSVR, and is a showcase for new owners and for those who want to introduce friends and family to what Playstation VR can do.

Notable Titles: VR Worlds, Batman Arkham VR, Rigs: Mechanized Combat League, Robinson: The Journey

Oculus Rift $599.00 (Requires PC)

Oculus Rift

  • 2x OLED Screens (1080 x 1200 per eye)
  • 90hz refresh rate
  • 110 degree field of view
  • Includes sensor, Oculus remote, built in headphones, Xbox One controller
  • Requires Windows 7 SP1 64bit or newer
  • Min System Requirements: Core i5 4590, GTX 970 or R9 290, 8GB RAM, HDMI 1.3, USB 3.0 x 3, USB 2.0 x 1

Oculus Rift is responsible for most of the hype surrounding VR, as their showing at E3 2012 proved that technology had finally come far enough that virtual reality could become actual reality. Shortly after, Oculus Rift held a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign that got everyone really jazzed about the Oculus, followed by a buyout by Facebook, which caused much skepticism about the direction in which Oculus was headed.

Finally Oculus Rift launched on March 28th, 2016 and is one of the premier platforms for VR. The hardware specs of the visor itself matches competitor HTC Vive pound for pound, and both deliver what is currently the height of visual fidelity for VR in the home.

Setup is simple, after you get the cables connected to your PC and position the sensor, which tracks head movement by detecting the multitude of IR emitters on the visor, a system that Oculus calls constellation tracking. With the included Xbox One controller in hand, you’re ready for virtual reality gaming.

Be aware that for those interested in total immersion with room-scale VR, separate purchases are required for room sensors and the upcoming Oculus Touch controllers (available Dec 6th) will bump the price up to nearly $900.

Notable titles: Elite Dangerous, Eve Valkyrie, Minecraft VR

HTC Vive $799.00 (Requires PC)

HTC Vive

  • 2x OLED Screens (1080 x 1200 per eye)
  • 90hz refresh rate
  • 110 degree field of view
  • Includes Vive headset, 2 wireless VR controllers, 2 tracking base stations, ear buds
  • Requires Windows 7 SP1 64bit or newer
  • Min System Requirements: Core i5-4590, GTX 1060 or RX480, 4GB RAM, HDMI 1.4 or Displayport 1.2, USB 2.0

Vive is the product from the collaboration of PC gaming giant Valve with smart phone pros HTC, who together set out to fully immerse gamers in VR. Out of the box, they deliver on that goal with full headset motion tracking, integrated motion control, and room-scale VR.

The setup is a bit different than other VR hardware. Gamers position the two included tracking base stations at the outer borders of their gaming space, which use the 32 sensors on the Vive to not only track where gamers are looking, but to track their movement around the room. With two wireless controllers in-hand, gamers can actually walk around their gaming space, up to 16’x16’ and explore a virtual world. The biggest difference between Oculus and Vive is that Vive lets you physically move around your virtual reality environment, whereas Oculus (for now) requires that you stay in one position.

An interesting aspect of the Vive is the presence of a front facing camera, which opens up possibilities not really available on any other platform. Currently, it can only be used to fiddle around with in-game to see what’s going on in your room without removing the visor, but it has countless of other potential applications. The obvious use is that the camera can help to keep gamers from crashing into objects in their home while gaming, but the potential for augmented reality is where most of the excitement lies. Rather than present an entirely different world, the Vive could be used to alter the real life surroundings of gamers to present an entirely new level of immersion.

Notable Titles: Edge of Nowhere, Hover Junkers, Vanishing Realms, Obduction

Final Thoughts

With the technology being so new, the odds of VR hardware being discounted on Black Friday are slim, but that doesn’t mean you should rush out now to buy your VR gear. Remember, all the VR setups we mentioned here have hardware prerequisites, and that’s where you can find savings this Thanksgiving. Smartphones, PCs, and gaming consoles are always discounted on Black Friday, so stay tuned to BFAds.net to keep up with doorbusters and buying guides for these categories and more.

Of course, the world of VR is wide and storied, and there is plenty that we just didn’t have time to cover. If you’ve got questions, suggestions, or just want to talk VR, head down to our comment section and let us and other readers know what you think about virtual reality.

October 24, 2016
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