Virtual Reality has come a long way since those ancient days of bright neon grids envisioned in the '80's.
While some might still consider the thought of strapping an entire video gaming system to their heads might seem like a gimmick out of a campy sci-fi flick, consumer-ready VR really has come a long way from its retro 'space age' origins. And with the recent releases of big name VR systems launching with an impressive library of full-fledged, playable games, it would seem as though VR is becoming more and more than mere proofs of concept.
For your browsing pleasure, we've brought together our list of this year's biggest names in VR.
These Are the Best VR Systems
Yes, it's a real thing. Yes, it's actually made out of cardboard.
Released in 2014 as a low-cost system to encourage consumer interest in VR, as well as to boost developer enthusiasm in creating VR applications, Google Cardboard proved a resounding success. With over 5 million Cardboard viewers shipped out through January 2016 and having published over 1,000 compatible apps, Google Cardboard is still going strong as one of the most popular VR systems around.
This ingenious device is quite literally just a pair of lenses and a headset made from plastic, cardboard, or other inexpensive material (Google has even posted instructions on how to make your own).
The actual hardware and display don't only come from your smartphone – it is your smartphone. Google Cardboard apps split your smartphone's screen into two, one for each eye, and applies barrel distortion and other fancy visual effects to result in a surprisingly convincing stereoscopic (“three-dimensional”) image with a generous field of view. The lens facilitates in splitting your smartphone's display into two, one for each eye, while the cardboard housing is there just to hold everything together and allows the unit to be mounted to your head.
Just mount your smartphone into the cardboard housing, and voila, you've got your very own VR system.
Possibly the best thing about the Google Cardboard is that it doesn't require you to re-organize or renovate an entire room to make it VR friendly, or to mount additional sensors and wiring to your walls. Cardboard apps rely entirely on your smartphone's gyroscope and sensors for controlling your VR experience.
If you're looking to dip your toes into VR, you won't find a more hassle free, easy on your wallet entry point than Google Cardboard.
2. Oculus Rift
The Oculus Rift is so powerful and so well known that its brand name has effectively become synonymous with “virtual reality.”
A few years ago, the Rift was available only in the form of extremely limited edition 'development kits' for its higher-tier Kickstarter backers, the Oculus Rift launched its consumer ready models earlier this year. A powerhouse of a VR unit, the Rift features an OLED display, 1080x1200 resolution per eye, a blazing 90 Hz refresh rate, and a commendable 110-degree field of view. Its integrated headphones provide a 3D audio effect, with support for rotational and positional tracking.
The Rift's immersive 3D experience is rendered using Oculus VR's proprietary “Constellation” system, which involves an external, stationary sensors picking up light emitted by infrared LEDs integrated into the headset. This stationary sensor needs to sit on a surface, preferably close to your gaming PC, ideally on a safe spot on your desk. This sensor has a detection range that's wide enough to support the use of the Rift whether you're standing, sitting, or walking around the same room as the sensor.
The great thing about the Rift is that it's easily one of the most highly advanced and feature-rich VR headsets on the market. The not so great things? The Rift carries with it a beefy price tag (the consumer models have retailed costing roughly twice as much as the development kits).
And with great power comes great required system specs: don't even think about hooking up a Rift to your gaming rig if you don't have a cutting-edge graphics card, a powerful processor, and ample amount of memory.
If you're not sure your system makes the cut, Oculus offers a free downloadable app that scans your computer and, within seconds, tells you if each individual component passes or fails the hefty requirements needed to get up to speed with a Rift.
Remember that while meeting minimum system requirements are fine and well, future generations of Rift games will likely continue to push the envelope beyond today's already hard-pressed system requirements.
So if you're dedicated, and can afford foot the bill for a new revolutionary media experience, consider upgrading to a system that exceeds Rift's minimum system requirements to keep your VR rig relevant for as long as possible.
Shipping with a comprehensive package that includes the headset, two motion controllers, and two base stations, HTC's Vive virtual reality system promises to deliver a fully immersive VR experience in a “whole room” setting.
With a staggering refresh rate of 90 Hz, 1080x1200 resolution per eye, and through the use of more than 70 sensors including a MEMS gyroscope, accelerometer, and laser positioning sensors, the Vive is one impressive piece of hardware. It's clear that the makers of Vive want you to really get in the game, and its motion controllers offer a degree of interacting with VR worlds in ways the Oculus Rift does not.
The drawbacks to the HTC Vive include its whopping price tag: at around $800, it's a good $200 more costly than the Rift.
Its full room VR capabilities also mean a more labor intensive set up, as you'd need to devote a certain amount of physical space to your VR experience to get the most of it. The Vive also requires the positioning of a camera and several external sensors throughout its space.
In spite of this, the Vive is technically impressive, and thanks to HTC's partnership with Valve Corporation, already sports an impressive library of fully realized, highly interactive games that go beyond the usual tech demos. Also, several games powered by major 3D engines such as the Unreal Engine 4 have integrated OpenVR and Vive support, allowing these games to be played using the Vive as your primary controller and display.
Sometimes called out as Samsung's answer to Google Cardboard, the Samsung Gear VR actually does have a lot in common with its Google counterpart.
Like Cardboard, the Gear VR is a VR system that relies on being mounted with a compatible Samsung Galaxy smartphone. The headset has built-in controls and is actually fairly comfortable to wear, definitely a point in its favor when evaluated by reviewers who didn't much care for how “cheap” Google Cardboard felt when worn (also, it does look a little silly to be waving around a headset made of cardboard). And speaking of reviewers, Samsung's Gear VR has garnered considerable praise for its accessibility, its compelling polish, and ready availability.
Samsung has even collaborated with Oculus VR in constructing the Gear VR's software environment, leading to a handful of consumer-ready games and apps, including virtual theaters in which you could stream Netflix, or your favorite video services while fully immersed in VR quality visuals and sound.
Where the Gear VR differs is that it has more bells and whistles, and its price tag.
Buyer beware, though, if you don't already have a phone that's compatible with the Gear VR, you'd actually be better off pre-ordering an Oculus Rift; you're likely to be spending more on getting a new phone and setting up Gear VR.
While we're not quite there yet with the direct neuro-cable uplinks from the Matrix (but that's probably that's for the better), VR has come a long way from its conceptual origins. The soaring popularity of big name VR systems like Google Cardboard, HTC Vive, and the Oculus Rift, in spite of their hefty price tags and strenuous technology requirements, show a surprising willingness of consumers to buy into this new wave of VR.
And maybe, just maybe, this generation's VR won't soon become just another passing fad.