The 'Year of VR' has been ushered in at least once every year for the last decade. But as much hype as the technology has generated in the past, it has largely fallen flat. At least so far. From cartoonish graphics to clunky gear, the complaints over the rollout of virtual reality have been many. And that's made it incredibly difficult for people to consider embracing it. But one thing is for sure, the virtual world is here to stay. 2021 has proven that there's plenty of success to be found in building virtual worlds where users can purchase plots of land, snap up ultra stylish houses, buy Louis Vuitton virtual garments or attend Ariana Grande concerts. This has renewed interest in the metaverse - loosely described as a shared and persistent virtual environment that combines real-life and digital experiences into one space, powered by virtual reality. This is where purchasing a VR headset becomes an important decision if you're looking to get the best out of your experience. So, here are five things to consider and know before pulling out the wallet to make an investment in a VR gadget.
If you're looking to buy a VR headset, it's worth considering how much you're willing to shell out, especially when considering that anything related to VR technology can run into the thousands of dollars. But while it might not be a light purchase, luckily there are options for all types of budgets.
Google Cardboard: Coming at the low-end of the market, this virtual reality headset is hard to beat, being priced at just under $10 (via Amazon). Granted, it might not provide the most outstanding VR experience ever, but it can be a great introduction for those not quite ready for a big commitment. Google Cardboard is compatible with Android and IOS. Also, as the price might give away, it's pretty simple to use (it's made out of cardboard after all), with plenty of free titles available on the Google Play Store’s Cardboard section.
Oculus Quest 2: This headset is a step up from the hugely popular Oculus Rift, as well as being a safe and reliable entry point to VR, without breaking the bank. For the price tag of just $300, you'll get one of the most complete VR experiences currently available, including super high resolution (1832 x 1920 pixel display for each eye), wireless features, ultra accurate motion tracking and compatibility with PC VR.
Valve Index: If you're willing to go all the way, a Valve Index VR headset will offer perhaps the best experience out there (in exchange for $999 of your money, of course). In addition to the actual headset, Valve has received much praise for its controllers that can take virtual reality experiences to a level of immersiveness way ahead of the competition. All in all, not a cheap choice but a reliable one.
One aspect to also take into account are the hidden costs. Some headsets don't come with touch controllers, so the separate purchases might add up in the end.
Types of VR headsets
When considering which VR headset to buy, it might be worth pausing to think of whether you'd prefer a standalone, PC, console or smartphone VR experience. This decision might make or break your whole experience.
Standalone VR: These headsets are wireless and, as such, don't require a PC or smartphone connection or any other type of external equipment. Also described as all-in-one headsets, VR is experienced solely through one piece of hardware, which is more convenient for those who value mobility and practicality, for example. On the flip side, however, you might have to sacrifice the quality of video, graphics and refresh rates, meaning that you'll end up with an experience that's less immersive. Oculus Quest 2 is an example of a standalone headset that 'll give you a decent and portable VR experience without the need to purchase add-ons.
PC VR: For this you'll need, as made obvious by the name, a PC nearby in constant connection to the headset. Moreover, the PC in question has to meet certain specifications (which generally means purchasing a high-end computer). But while it might appear less than practical, PC VR headsets like Valve Index and HTC Vive, will translate into a superior VR overall, mostly because of graphical detail, which make your experience more immersive and dynamic.
Console VR: When it comes to this particular segment, PlayStation VR is the leading option. PSVR headsets work with PS4 and PS5 consoles and feature an extensive gaming and movie library. A particular draw might be the exclusive titles offered by Sony like Resident Evil, Blood and Truth and Iron Man VR.
Smartphone VR: All of the headsets, these are by far the easiest way of entering a virtual experience (and also a cost conscious choice). All that users have to do is slide their smartphones into the headset and let it work its magic. However, these headsets can't run the vast majority of VR assets, including interactive VR content and games. In addition, you might miss out on advanced audio and motion tracking features that other headsets offer, so you'll likely not end up with a very immersive experience after all.
Specs are a crucial consideration when it comes down to choosing a VR headset. These are just some of the aspects you need to know if you're looking for an outstanding headset performance:
Resolution Per Eye: VR centers around getting visual experiences like none other, so naturally having high resolution is essential. This boils down to knowing the amount of pixels a VR headset is able to display. In this case, you'll be looking for higher resolutions, between 1,700 by 1,440 (per eye) to 1,832 by 1,920 (per eye). Having a higher resolution will help you better visualize images, edges, text and other visual elements.
Field of View (FOV): This relates to the range that is visible by the user, for example, how much of a given environment you can see at any given moment. Generally speaking, it's advisable to go for headsets with a FOV of between 100-110 degrees. Higher FOV's enable optimal levels of immersiveness.
Refresh rate: Having a great resolution is not enough to get the best virtual reality experience out of a headset. Refresh rates refer to how fast your headset can show images in terms of frames per second or FPS. In this sense, options above 90 frames per second are the best. Anything below it could even lead to motion sickness to the wearer.
Positional tracking: Precise tracking enables better and more immersive virtual reality with a VR headset. Positional tracking is essentially what allows the user to feel like they're moving inside VR. Lags between real-life position and in-platform could have a negative impact so you better look into 1:1 positional tracking, which are generally offered by most controllers and high-end headsets.
Audio: This is another aspect that will depend on the type of VR headset; entry-level gadgets will generally have built-in speakers while high-end offerings will come with built-in headphones and in some cases, even built-in microphones.
VR might transport you into endless virtual worlds and environments, but you'll still be standing in the real-world throughout the experience. That said, it's important to take a look at the size of your surrounding environment as you'll need enough space for movement and better possibilities to operate a VR headset properly. Different types of headsets will come with specific recommendations, based on features like the type of content being played or the tracking system. Developers usually specify play area recommendations. HTC Vive, for example, sets the minimum play area at 2 m x 1.5 m (6 ft 6 in x 5 ft). For Tethered VR headsets (those we referred to earlier as PC VR headsets and also known as desktop VR), it's also worth bearing in mind the practicalities of plugging the headset cables into a computer and having wires and cables hanging out. That might not be something very convenient when moving around with a VR headset. Depending on your headset and your VR title of choice, it's always better to check the manufacturer's and game developer's recommendations.
Finally, VR might come with some unpleasant side effects. Unfortunately, it's still common that users report feeling something called 'motion sickness' when wearing VR headsets, which is basically a disconnect between what your eyes are seeing (and what the brain thinks is seeing) and what your body is actually experiencing. A simple example of this would be you thinking you're walking through a space (in virtual reality), when in real-life your body is pretty much static and you never left your room. Motion sickness can translate into a range of things like nausea, dizziness, sweating and headaches as early in into their VR experience as 15 minutes. So clearly, that's an issue that shouldn't be overlooked. That good news is that VR headsets are slowly becoming more sophisticated and capable of reducing sickness. Some experts have also argued that with time, our bodies might adapt to the technology and build up tolerance. In any case, there are ways of optimizing your VR experience like making sure that your headset is adjusted properly to your head, opting for shorter sessions and paying attention to your breathing.
Just like any other purchase, VR headsets come with plenty more to think about than just the price tag. Taking a closer look at the specs of each gadget is perhaps already standard practice for you, but it’s crucial to consider lesser known aspects like the space you have available around you, the right fit for your head and whether or not you could be prone to motion sickness. Hopefully, this list will help you navigate your choices a little better and good luck in your hunt for your first (or newest) VR headset.