vr headsets
Let's take a look at the Virtual Reality headsets out there. Yes, the big ones everyone keeps talking about.

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The Devices of VR: Part 1- Tethered VR Headsets

The virtual train is leaving the station. All aboard! Oh, you don’t have a ticket? That is a problem. How do you get one?  That’s a good question. Fortunately I can help you with that one.Let’s take a bit of a journey together, you know before you hop on that train bound for virtual points unknown. I’ll show you the devices of VR that will help you on your way.

This article is really intended for folks who probably don’t own a VR device yet or those who have been following the VR scene but have not pulled the trigger on buying. It may also help those who have delved into something like Google Cardboard and want to upgrade their seat on the train. While I can’t tell you which headset to buy, I can help you understand the type of hardware that is currently available and help you understand what each device has to offer. There is also a bit of history in here for those who may be interested.

Part One

This will be a three part series, starting with high-immersion devices. These devices are also commonly referred to as tethered or connected. You will see why as you continue reading. The next part will cover the very important mobile VR sector; and then part three will deal with the future devices getting ready to take us to the newest virtual realities.

I am going to keep this article light on the deep technical details. Those who really want to see those details can go to our VR Gear section. There we have a breakdown of all of the specs for each head mounted display discussed here (as well as others). The devices discussed in this article are ones that I have personally tried. My hope is that this will help you understand where we’ve come from so far, where we are at now, and by the final article where we may be going soon.

You can find out more specifics at our VR Gear site.

Jacking into the Matrix

High-immersion VR is so named because of the level of quality and immersion that it can bring to the table for its users. It allows you to have presence inside virtual worlds in a way that can’t be matched by lesser VR devices. The reason for this is that high-immersion VR hardware is generally connected to fairly powerful computers that help to drive a myriad of experiences. Presence is the feeling you get that you are truly in a place. Truly connected to it. Presence is the level of reality you feel in virtual worlds. How much do you really feel that you are in the world that is surrounding you?

“As I tell others, we have to start somewhere. Without a good start we can’t get the prices down.”

This is why these devices are also referred to as connected or tethered. They require a connection to an external system of some sort. Usually this is a computer, but in the case of at least one device the connection is to a console. This is generally also the highest cost to entry for virtual reality. $400-$1800 and up is the price of admission. This is also the first generation of modern VR and it is expected that prices will come down over time and as new hardware comes to the market. Still, considering what you get for that price, VR is relatively cheap.

Different Views of What Cheap Means

Cheap? As Inigo Montoya said, “I do not think it means what you think it means”. $1800 is not cheap, Joe. That is true. Still, consider that you are getting a very high end PC for that price, one that you can use for many other things. The VR experience is top notch and I think once you try it you’ll agree that it is worth it. I will admit that it isn’t something everyone can afford quite yet. As I tell others, we have to start somewhere. Without a good start we can’t get the prices down. Plus, if you already have a good PC that meets the specs for the VR device you want, then you can cut the price down to around $400-800.

So now that you understand the types of devices we are talking about let’s get down to the specifics, shall we? Off we go.

Edit 10-7-16: Since this was posted the Oculus Connect 3 conference has finished. They announced a new minimum specs for Oculus that has just opened VR to a much wider audience. Now you need only an Nvidia 960 and an i3 processor (or AMD equivalent). Even if you don’t understand these specs, believe me, this is huge for VR. If the proposed technology from Oculus works that is. CyberPowerPC announced a forthcoming VR Ready PC for $499! That changes the cost to entry pretty significantly. It isn’t available yet, but you can see other VR ready systems on their site. Other Oculus Partners like MSI, ASUS, and Alienware will follow suit.

Oculus Rift: A Bit of Duct Tape; VR Reborn

Oculus Rift is largely credited with the rebirth of modern day VR. The founder and creator, Palmer Luckey created a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 to fund the development of his device. I tried one of the very first models displayed to the public at a conference that same year. It was made of duct tape and it was glorious.

To that point I had given up hope on virtual reality. At the time it was my job to find any immersive technologies that my company could use in various ways. I wasn’t having much luck.  I had tried $50,000 devices that just left me irritated, dizzy, and annoyed. Then the Oculus entered my life. I’m pretty sure I heard trumpets and a chorus when I put it on my head.

Oculus

Garage VR  

The Oculus wasn’t much to speak of at that time, the resolution was poor and field of view small. Still it took me into this small underground room and I was in wonder. I stared at this pipe running along the top of the stone wall for five minutes. I had found what I was looking for. VR that worked. It needed much improvement but I knew VR was about to be reborn.

A Bit of History: DK1

Shortly after the successful Kickstarter the Development Kit 1 (DK1) was launched in 2013. This version of the Rift had an 640×800 resolution in each eye, 90° field of view (FOV) and no camera for positional tracking. A human’s field of view is close to 180° left to right (95° in either direction). So you can imagine 90° cuts out a lot of our natural viewing area. This gives us the effect of looking through a scuba mask or perhaps a full motorcycle helmet. Positional tracking is what allows you to move your head (and your body) in a VR space in a natural way.

Without positional tracking, leaning in or back or side to side would cause strange results. It caused nausea and dizziness for many. The DK1 was an amazing device as a start, but the lack of positional tracking really hindered it. These are no longer available from Oculus, but you may see them out there on secondary markets. Unless you just want a piece of history I would recommend you avoid buying one.

Oculus Rift DK1

Just a Bit More: DK2

This was the next development kit from Oculus and the final one released before the consumer version was launched. It boasted a full 1080 HD view for each eye and 100° FOV. It also included positional tracking by way of an external camera. This allowed us to move our head around more naturally in the various VR experiences that were available at the time. Many of the early Oculus games were made using this development kit. As with the DK1, this is no longer available outside secondary markets. Also as with the DK1, I would recommend not buying it unless you want a museum piece.  Though I know there are some people that still have and use this one while they wait for the VR market to mature a bit.

Oculus Rift DK2

I included these less to give a history lesson and more because you may still see them floating around out there. I’ve even seen some people who were using a DK2 or recently purchased one thinking it was the latest version on offer. They had never heard of the CV1 and so I wanted to make the distinction for those who did not know.

CV1

Consumer Version 1 (CV1) is the Oculus Rift version that launched this year (click link and go to the bottom of the page for the compatibility tool to see if your PC is Rift ready).  It increased the FOV to 110°, the refresh rate to 90hz, and resolution to 1200p per eye. The CV1 also shipped with built in head phones that don’t look like much but work extremely well.

Oculus Rift CV1

It also reduced the screen door effect by including two screens, one per eye, as opposed to the one screen of the earlier kits. The screen door effect occurs when you are extremely close to a display (such as modern VR) and you are able to see the individual pixels. It looks like you are viewing the scene through a screen door. Thus “screen door effect”.

Finally, the CV1 shipped with a new camera tracking system for more precise positional tracking, called Constellation. This single camera allows the Rift to currently be capable of seated or standing experiences. Something some consider a limitation of this HMD. This is about to be remedied with the release of Oculus Touch.

Oculus Touch

Touch is a set of hand held motion controllers that will enable users to interact with virtual worlds with their hands, much like the Lighthouse Controllers from the HTC Vive which I discuss below. These controllers will ship with a second Constellation camera that many think will enable room scale tracking. Room scale tracking is considered to be the most immersive way to experience VR, but this is debated.

Basically room scale tracking allows you to move around a small space that the system maps out. For Constellation it is said to be 12’x12’, but that could change. Touch should be launching next week (according to rumors by developers working with Touch) but there isn’t technically a release date yet. Oculus Connect is starting today so we should hear more about it.

The Oculus Touch

Currently Oculus Rift CV1 costs $599. You can try them out at certain stores like Best Buy or at VR Meetups that occur in various major cities. The cost of Touch is unknown, but I anticipate $199, bringing the total price for this VR hardware to $798. Pretty much the same price as our next HMD.  There are also bundles that include a computer with the HMD for a supposedly lower price, but it depends on the computer that is in the bundle.  You can download or purchase experiences and games on the Oculus Home store or Steam.

The Oculus Rift is one of two HMDs considered the pinnacle of modern VR at the moment. Let’s take a look at the second one sharing the top spot.

HTC Vive: A Contender Vies for the Throne

In a collaboration between cellphone maker, HTC, and Steam platform creator, Valve Software, HTC Vive was first announced in 2014. Well into development by this point; it was thought to be a continuation of work originally started by employees at Valve. Valve also worked on parts of the Oculus Rift. A fully working system was demonstrated at the Game Developer’s Conference early the following year and was met with great accolades due to the fact that it came included with motion controllers using the Lighthouse tracking system.

Took the VR community by storm. What else do you expect for Gabe?

The consumer version launched this year just before the Oculus Rift. They did have a development kit, the Vive Pre, but it launched so close to the final release that there was little difference. The consumer version specs are pretty much identical to the Oculus Rift. 1200p per eye, 90hz refresh rate, and 110° FOV. What set the launch of the Vive apart from the Oculus was what I mentioned earlier.

Lighthouse: A Beacon for Room-Scale VR

The Vive came with two Lighthouse sensors (instead of a camera like the Oculus) and two Lighthouse motion controllers included with the HMD. The two sensors allowed for tracking the HMD and controllers in a 15’x15’ room scale area. It works extremely well and the included hand controllers allowed users to interact with their room scale worlds in wondrously new ways. They allowed you to actually reach out and grab things, to punch an opponent in a boxing match, or hold up a weapon to attack your enemies. It is a very convincing level of immersion, taking presence in virtual worlds to an all new level.

A pair of HTC Vive Controllers

As I said above; debates continue over room scale being the most immersive level of VR. Many believe that it is, but others believe it is solely based on the experience. Some developers have favored a focus on standing experiences with novel movement systems such as teleportation. Even many Vive experiences rely on teleportation systems for movement. This turns a room scale experience essentially into a standing one. 15’x15’ runs out faster than you expect. Just ask these folks. Warning: some language in the video. This video also gives you a look at how much someone can forget where they really are while in a virtual world.

To Room Scale or Not to Room Scale

The biggest argument against room scale that I’ve heard is its viability. That is that room scale depends on the user having space for it in the first place. A good many people that I talk to simply don’t have a 12’x12’ or 15’x15’ area to play in. For those people the ability to do room scale is pointless and any experience that requires it is one that they can’t enjoy. Developers have to take this into account if they want the widest adoption of their games. Thus the reason even many room scale experiences have systems like teleportation movement in place.

My personal experience is that whether you are sitting, standing, or doing room scale, you can find very fun experiences. If you have the space, then consider setting up your area for room scale. If you do then you can enjoy all of the options for exploring VR. There is more than one good way to enjoy VR.

Don’t Trip

There is one major concern when considering room scale and I want you to be aware of it. Because these headsets are connected by a cable to a computer, there is always the chance of tripping. The cables are very long, but as you move you can twist them up and tangle them in your feet. I have never fallen because of this; but I have yanked my cables out of the base station. I didn’t damage my system but there is always the potential. This issue is one of the biggest drawbacks of connected VR devices.

“The Oculus Rift AND HTC Vive stand as the two top tier VR head mounted displays. Either one is going to give you an amazing experience.”

Manufacturers are trying to work on wireless solutions. A company named Quark is actually working on a wireless adapter for the Vive to help us cut the cord. This isn’t an easy endeavor though. There is a lot of data passing between the computer and headset to drive a high end experience. It is problematic to drive that much data through a wireless connection. Despite this I think we will have a wireless solution sooner than we think.

EDIT(10-6-2016): At Oculus Connect today Mark Zuckerberg gave a brief glimpse of a wireless Rift in the very early stages of development. So as I said, wireless is coming.

Whatever the case, take this into consideration when looking at using VR in room scale.

The HTC Vive currently costs $799 and includes the motion controllers above. There is a compatibility tool that you can download on Steam to see if your current system can run it. You can find games to download or purchase on Steam or now on Viveport.

Two Kings for the VR Throne

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive stand as the two top tier VR head mounted displays. Either one is going to give you an amazing experience. With the release of Touch and given that it allows for room scale at the same level (which is currently unknown) as the Vive it is almost tossing a coin to determine which to get. I personally own both, I could not decide. It is possible that the Rift will require more than two cameras to allow for the same room scale experience as the Vive. The Rift will become more expensive if that is found to be true.

That makes the choice a bit clearer. If you don’t care about room scale and don’t have the space anyway, then the choices get hard again. For me, and this is purely personal opinion, the Oculus and Touch are a bit more comfortable and the Touch controllers a bit more ergonomic. My close friend however prefers the Vive because of a wound he received to his hand that makes the Touch controllers harder for him to use.

Wanna try VR? Find a Meetup near you.
Wanna try VR? Find a Meetup near you.

Well that didn’t help at all, Joe. Well, remember when I said I could not choose for you? It is a very person specific thing. If interested in one of these headset, the best idea is to find a location where you can test them. Find a couple friends that each have one or both of them. I highly recommend you try them before deciding, if you are able, as $800 is a lot of dough for you to be unhappy with your choice.

PSVR: Consoles Enter the Fray

Not to be outdone, Sony announced Project Morpheus on the same day that Oculus announced the improved DK2. Project Morpheus would go on to become PlayStation VR (PSVR – boo on changing the name) and would put the PS4 as the first console to support VR. I was at the conference where PSVR was announced. So I rushed to the floor dodging elbows, backpacks and camera laden monopods in order to get my ticket to try it out. You’re welcome.

The PSVR

My first try of the PSVR was not positive. I had already tried the Oculus DK2 and was amazed at the upgrade from DK1. So the bar was high. The PSVR was uncomfortable and not as immersive. The resolution was also not as nice. The Sony rep seemed upset with me when I told him of my poor experience. So I really wrote them off.

Then another conference came a long and a new version of the PSVR was on display. While it looked exactly the same, I was told the hardware and software were different. I asked (read begged) to give it a try and was given a chance. This time my experience was much different. I tried two demos. The first one was fun; but the rep had put the HMD on wrong and it made my head hurt. I thought I was heading for another disappointing time with PSVR.

Not just a pretty face.

Moving to the next station I let the rep put the HMD on (we were not allowed to adjust them ourselves – bad decision by Sony). Unlike the person before, he fit it correctly on my head. Not only did it not make my head hurt, it was extremely comfortable. This was also the first time I was getting to use the PlayStation Move in conjunction with the VR headset. Move is PlayStation’s existing motion controller.

The PSVR

The demo started up, London Heist (which ships with PSVR). This was my first real standing, motion controller experience and I LOVED it. The PSVR really showed me why motion controllers would be important for VR. Why they would be a must really. At this point, I knew that PSVR was not just another pretty face (to me it looks the coolest out of all of the connected HMDs). It was going to offer something to the VR scene.

Connected but Not as Capable

PSVR works by connecting to the PlayStation 4 or soon the PlayStation Pro. The numbers aren’t bad per se. 1080p in each eye compared the 1200p of the Rift and Vive and it’s FOV is 100°, but the refresh rate is much higher at 120hz. The refresh rate is how quickly the screen refreshes the image. The faster this is the less chance you will see a jittery image. Despite full HD specs, the PSVR is not as capable as its PC cousins. It has to do with the limited nature of consoles.

“SONY STANDS A GREAT CHANCE OF REALLY COMPETING AT THE TOP LEVEL BECAUSE OF THEIR ALREADY IMPRESSIVE INSTALL BASE OF 40+ MILLION UNITS”

Current consoles simply can’t compete with the power of a modern PC to drive VR at the highest levels. Upgrade-ability is also an issue with consoles. As VR grows they can’t keep up. Users must wait for the company to create a new system to gain an upgrade. This means that the console itself is the limiting factor in VR. Even the announced PS Pro with a possible 4K capability is unlikely to enhance the VR of PSVR over the current PS4.

Not Counted Out

While the PSVR may lag behind a bit and consoles may be less powerful, this does not mean the PSVR experience is bad (though this will be subjective). PSVR runs very well on the PS4. I’ve tried it about four times now.  Sony has impressed me every time aside from the first. The graphics aren’t as good as the Vive or Rift, but VR has a way of drawing you in past the graphics and into the experience. Sony stands a great chance of really competing at the top level because of their already impressive install base of 40+ million units. Vive and Rift can’t claim this type of foundation.

PSVR is also much cheaper and may be a great gateway to high end VR. You can have one for only $399, if you already have a PS4. You may also need to buy Move controllers if you don’t already have them. Obviously if you also need to buy the console then you’ll need another $399. The console and headset price takes you up to the Vive and Oculus level of cost; but only if you don’t also need to buy a VR ready PC.

PSVR is taking pre-orders now and is shipping October 13.  Games and experiences will be available on the PlayStation Network.

FOVE: Tracking the Windows to Your Soul

Eyes are said to be the windows to your soul. FOVE‘s HMD wants to track them. Eyetracking is the biggest addition that FOVE brings to the VR space. The FOVE uses a series of internal sensors to accurately track your eyes so that the computer knows where you are looking in the virtual space. So instead of turning your head to aim that crosshair, you can simply look at your target instead.  FOVE eye-tracking works pretty well for the most part; yet the support is lacking in applications. There are also many questions as to how viable eye-tracking will be in games.

FOVE

For instance, when I tried this at South by South West one year, I found the eye-tracking in their demo game caused a decent amount of eye strain which was not very fun. However there are many uses outside of games where eye-tracking could be extremely important. FOVE themselves used the technology to allow disabled children in Japan to play music. Using their eyes to choose notes while wearing a FOVE; a computer took that input and played the appropriate note on the piano. This was an amazing use of the technology.

Considered other disable gamers who can’t use their hands or legs to move around and interact. The FOVE could bring VR to them and allow them to interact with virtual worlds like anyone else. There is no other consumer level solution like this at the moment.

I See You I Think

While eye-tracking is a great new feature and the HMD has a better resolution than the Vive or Oculus, it has a lesser refresh rate of only 70hz. 90hz is the general consensus for the rate required to drive smooth images in VR. This could cause jitter that interferes with eye tracking and the experience itself, despite the resolution of 2560×1440 (basically 1400p). So we will have to wait and see how it compares. My last try of the headset was over a year ago and it was not competitive image wise with Vive or Oculus.

The FOVE is available for preorder in 29 days. I decided to included it in this roundup because it is launching soon and it does offer something none of the others do. Beyond the possible refresh rate issue and eye strain concerns there is also the question of content. There have been no announcements on where the content for the HMD is going to come from. Have they partnered with Steam, Viveport, or Oculus Home; or are they going to try and create yet another VR app store?

Conclusion

Open Source VR is a nice concept but where is it going?

So this ends part one. Hey, stop cheering! I hope you found the information here useful to your understanding the devices available to you. There are some I did not include such as OSVR because, in their case, they have not found widespread adoption. They have also not released a true consumer version yet or even hinted at one on the horizon that I can see. Still you can follow the link to know more about them. Please let me know if this was helpful or ask any questions you may have. I’ll be glad to answer what I can. Please stay tuned for the next in the series focusing on Mobile VR. Thanks for reading!

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Written by Joe Banes

Tech writer, VR Evangelist, Geek of all trades. I live in Arizona with my lovely wife and daughter. I am passionate about innovative technologies that will drive our future, both near and far. Virtual, augmented, and a mix of both realities will change our world in so many ways, touching so many aspects of our lives and I plan to be in on the action. Storyteller at heart and budding content developer, I've been around VR/AR for the last 5 years and in technology for well over 20 and I am, as Walt Disney put it, always moving forward.

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