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Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a VR Headset

Virtual reality is mainstream. While that seems like an overnight phenomenon, it’s far from it. Back in the 1960s, there were immersive stereoscopic videos. In 1961, we had a motion-tracking headset. Interactive Google Street View-like experiences? Those, of course, were around in the late 1970s.

But that stuff could only be found in research labs and in prototype form. These days, VR-capable hardware is everywhere. Tack-sharp displays, powerful processors, and versatile sensors are in everyone’s pockets. And to spur the next wave of immersive entertainment, VR directors and developers are creating the language of a new medium on the fly. Virtual reality is going to be awesome. Then it’s going to get even better. And fast.

So fast, in fact, that the VR systems available today will seem adorably primitive by year’s end. But that doesn’t mean you should wait: Today’s VR options are affordable, impressive, fun, and phone-powered. Here’s what to keep in mind if you plan on taking the VR plunge, from the price of admission to the capabilities of each headset to what you should do with them.

VR Headsets You Can Buy Now

Google Cardboard
Cardboard is a beginner’s virtual reality experience that knows it’s a beginner’s virtual reality experience. That has its pros and cons. First, the great things: Google Cardboard is cheap, the platform works with both Android and iOS devices, and there’s a lot of content available.

It’s also dead-simple. You download the Cardboard app, put your phone in a cardboard viewer tricked out with a pair of magnification lenses, watch a demo experience to get the hang of it, and then hit up the Google Play Store’s Cardboard section to expand your VR library. You can even make your own immersive experiences easily with the free Cardboard Camera app. Most titles for Google Cardboard are free. The rest are cheap.

Most of the viewers are cheap, too. In Sweden, they’re making them out of Happy Meal boxes. If you subscribe to the New York Times or bought an issue of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, you may already have one. Both publications included fold-up viewers with individual issues to complement their own VR apps.

Here’s what’s less than ideal about Google Cardboard, though: Impressive as the platform is, it’s not the best indicator of what’s so exciting about VR. The cheap cardboard viewers are—surprise!—not that comfortable. It’s more like looking through a pair of rough-edged binoculars than a fully immersive experience. Your phone’s screen resolution may also be disappointing under the viewer’s lenses, making it a pixellated escapade. And while there are games available for Google Cardboard, much of the content is 360-degree video—which you could argue isn’t real VR at all. (More on that later.)

If you’re happy with the Cardboard experience but are jonesing for a comfier headset, Google just launched a wing of its online store dedicated to Cardboard-compatible viewers. The options are still scant, and the comfiest-looking one costs $120—not exactly a price in line with the Cardboard ethos.

Bang For the Buck: 5 out of 5 explosions
Whoa Factor: 3 out of 5 Keanu Reeves
Comfort: One itchy sweater

Samsung Gear VR
In many ways, Samsung Gear VR is similar to Google Cardboard. The required $99 piece of hardware is a headset that uses your phone to process and display all the VR magic. From there, however, it’s a vastly different animal—in part because it’ll drain your phone battery very, very quickly. Still, the Gear VR experience is great.

For one thing, it’s comfy. You don’t have to hold the headset to your face, because it comes with straps. You may get a bit of “ski goggle” discomfort during prolonged face-computer sessions, but the straps are adjustable. It’s far more of a lean-back experience than a basic Cardboard viewer.

Second of all, the Gear VR headset has some of its own high-tech wizardry. At first glance, it looks like a plastic third-party Cardboard headset, but there are fancy sensors and input options built in. There’s a proximity sensor that pauses and plays experiences based on whether the headset is on your face. There’s a touchpad on the side of it so you can interact with onscreen options easily when it’s strapped to your mug. And you don’t just drop your phone in; you jack it into a USB connector on the front of the Gear VR.

The third difference is a big one: The Gear VR doesn’t just plug into any phone. You need Samsung’s Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, Note 5, S7, or S7 Edge to make it work. Those are all great phones, but the compatibility limitations make it a non-starter for owners of other Android handsets or iPhones. But it’s a win-win(-win) for anyone who wants a new Galaxy phone, a solid VR experience, or both.

The VR experience you get with the Gear VR is the best one available right now, even if that isn’t saying much. There’s a ton of content available—including Land’s End, which is probably the greatest VR experience of all time—but most of that content costs money. That’s OK, it’s good. There’s also more than one way to get it.

The main avenue of commerce is the Gear VR’s version of the Oculus Store. You can browse the store and download VR content while the headset’s on your face. You can also get VR experiences the old-timey way—by visiting the Oculus app while your phone’s in your hand. (Keep in mind that the Gear VR version of the Oculus Store won’t have all the same content as the Oculus Home store for the full-fledged Oculus Rift. Oculus’s own headset will be more powerful, and it will have its own exclusive content.)

Bang For the Buck: 4 out of 5 explosions
Whoa Factor: 4 of out 5 Keanu Reeves
Comfort: One pair of ski goggles

The VR Headsets You Might Want to Wait for

Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR
Here’s the thing with Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR: As immersive as they are, they lack a full dimension compared to the next wave of VR devices and platforms. Imagine the VR experience of Cardboard and Gear VR as being seated in a swivel chair that’s rooted to the ground—you can look up, down, and around you in every direction, but you can’t move around in 3D space.

That’s the reason why some people are shying away from calling the 360-degree experiences on Gear and Cardboard “VR.” They’re reserving that moniker for the near-term future. (If only they’d do the same for hoverboards.)

High-powered headsets such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony PlayStation VR will let you move around in your virtual surroundings, and objects in your virtual surroundings will adapt to your viewing perspective. The secret sauce is called positional tracking, and in the case of the Rift and the Vive, you’ll need to place small hardware components around a gaming space to track your movements. With that in mind, setup will be a bit more complicated than just strapping on a phone-driven headset, but it’s what will make the next wave of VR devices even more mind-boggling. And the wait really isn’t that long: The Oculus Rift will begin shipping on March 28, the HTC Vive will ship on April 5, and the Sony PlayStation VR will be available sometime this year.

Of course, there are major tradeoffs with these next-generation headsets. The headsets themselves are not cheap, and they’ll all require extra non-cheap hardware, too. The Oculus Rift headset costs $600, and the high-powered “Oculus Ready” computers you’ll need to actually use it will start at $950. If you want the company’s VR-optimized Touch controllers, you’ll have to buy them separately, later this year, for an unspecified price.

The HTC Vive headset will cost $800, but that includes two wireless handheld controllers similar to the separately sold Oculus controllers. You’ll still need to splurge on a compatible computer, which must have specs similar to Oculus’s list of minimum requirements. In other words, expect a total package in the vicinity of $1,800 to $2,000—not that the price is causing people to shy away, because HTC apparently sold 15,000 units in the first 10 minutes of preorders.

Sony hasn’t announced pricing for its PlayStation VR just yet, but you can expect your wallet to take a similar hit. So there are vast price differences to go along with the additional capabilities of these next-gen VR devices.

Do you want other important things to think about? Good. For one, you’ll need to keep all these headsets physically tethered to a computer or console in order to use them. Second, the positional-tracking feature is likely only to be used in gaming at the outset, but that may change fairly quickly. Two companies, 8i and Lytro, have announced impossible-sounding cameras that let you “move around” in live-action video footage. At launch, that experience is unlikely for headsets like the Rift and Vive, but it could soon be ubiquitous.

While the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are dead similar in a number of ways—1200 x 1080 OLED displays for each eye, a 110-degree field of view, ample room inside the headset to accommodate a pair glasses, and the need for a compatible Windows 10 PC—there are huge differences, too. The Vive will use SteamVR as its content mall, while the Oculus Rift will tap into Oculus Home. The Oculus Rift will require at least three USB ports on your PC, while the HTC Vive can deal with just one. The Oculus Rift will be compatible with Microsoft’s Xbox One console and ship with an Xbox controller, but it won’t magically turn Xbox games into VR games. With the exception of an immersive version of Minecraft, you’ll likely play most Xbox games on a virtual flatscreen in a VR environment. And HTC’s headset will support a greater range of movement within virtual spaces: A 15-foot-by-15-foot box, as compared to the Rift’s 5-by-11-foot rectangle.

Bang For the Buck: 3 out of 5 explosions
Whoa Factor: 6 out of 5 Keanu Reeves
Comfort: One rec-league softball umpire mask

Your “Not-Quite” VR Options

Not every face computer is made for VR. You may be wondering about other head-mounted displays you’ve heard about, and this is why they’re missing from this guide.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is the most well-known, but it’s an example of augmented reality or blended reality rather than virtual reality. When you’re wearing the HoloLens headset, you can see your real-world surroundings just fine; you’re looking through a pair of transparent waveguides instead of at a display. The waveguides are clear lenses allowing lightwaves from your actual surroundings to blend with digitally created holographic images. Microsoft’s “light engines” project images into those waveguides, where it creates the illusion of digital objects interacting with your real-world surroundings.

Far less is known about Magic Leap, a mysterious startup that has nearly $800 million in its investment coffers. While the company’s actual product is still enigmatic, we do know that it will fit within the augmented reality bucket, similar to Microsoft’s HoloLens.

The Avegant Glyph headset is another thing entirely. It’s a pair of headphones you can slip headband-down over your eyes, where you’re greeted by a unique pair of peepholes. They project light directly into your eyeballs, letting you watch video from your phone while it’s tethered to it. It’s not intended to be an immersive display, and it doesn’t have the same sort of head-tracking technology of today’s most-basic VR devices.

And Google Glass? Well, no one’s really sure what that was.

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