New Atlas compares the best VR headsets you can buy in 2016
This year will mark the first holiday season where at least some kids young and old will be unwrapping packages with full virtual reality systems inside. Now that we (mostly) know what the five big VR headsets of 2016 have in store, let's line them up, compare their details and help you make a decision for yourself or a loved one. It's New Atlas' 2016 VR Comparison Guide.
Plastic is the norm with VR headsets, though Google took what Oculus started – some fabric on the Rift – and kicked it up a notch with the all-fabric Daydream View.
A VR headset is little more than a pair of convex lenses with a display or two hidden behind. So the gizmo that powers the headset is going to be one of the biggest determinants of overall quality.
The two PC-based headsets, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, are far and away the most powerful. In fact these are the only two VR systems today that we'd describe as high-end. That also, however, means they're crazy-expensive. Those are no ordinary PCs powering these headsets; they're pricey gaming machines that meet very specific standards for VR.
In theory, Sony would hit the perfect middle-ground for consumers, as it draws on the dynamism of the capable-but-not-costly PS4. You know, the one that's already been sold more than 40 million times, and may already be sitting under your TV. Unfortunately, we see PlayStation VR as a broken product that we can't recommend as a legit VR system (read on).
The wild card is entry-level mobile VR: the Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream View. The basic illusion of VR is surprisingly solid there, considering their smarts come from smartphones that you slide inside hollow headsets. They are, however, missing some key features with an experience that sits at least a few notches below the high-end.
The Gear VR requires one of six compatible Samsung Galaxy phones; right now Daydream View only works with two phones, Google's own Pixel and Pixel XL.
Base station starting price
These are the (in some cases rough) starting prices for those base stations. A PS4 is relatively cheap, while the gaming PCs required for the Rift and Vive are anything but.
Oculus did recently announce a clever workaround that will soon allow the Rift to run on a cheaper (US$500+) gaming machine: It can use a graphics card that only produces 45 fps (frames-per-second) feeds, but uses some background processes that fill in the blanks with synthetic frames – so the headset still shows a more desirable 90 fps. Since we haven't tested this, though, you should take that with a few grains of salt. For now, you may still want to play it safe and buy a more standard $800+ VR-ready PC if you're getting the Rift.
We listed the approximate full retail starting price for the cheapest phone that works with the Gear VR, 2015's Galaxy S6. But remember that a) you can probably find it for cheaper if you buy it used or shop around and b) most people buy phones with little or no money upfront on installment plans.
This is a sharp line in the sand between mobile VR and PC- or console-based VR. The mobile stuff only tracks your head rotation: Move or lean your body and the virtual world moves or leans with you (an odd, jarring, sensation). With positional tracking on the higher-end setups, you also move and lean inside the virtual world, easily the more instinctual and logical result.
Motion controls "give you hands" inside virtual worlds. Oculus Touch for the Rift and the Vive's controls both do a great job with this, though Oculus Touch has the slightly better ergonomics.
This is PlayStation VR's Achilles' heel. In our experience, its PS Move motion-control-tracking is nothing short of terrible – leading to juddering, pulsating and chopping virtual hands. For this reason alone, we don't recommend buying PSVR until Sony releases a revamped camera and controller system (something the company has yet to address).
Mobile VR doesn't yet have real motion controls. Daydream View has a remote that can do some basic motion-sensing, but a) it's only one remote, not a pair and b) it's more about pointing the occasional virtual wand or gun than it is giving you "hand presence" inside VR.
Motion controller price
Sony's godawful PS Move controllers ring up for around $50 for the pair, but do yourself a favor and avoid them like the plague. The excellent Oculus Touch is up for pre-order now for $199, while the Vive's also-great motion controls have been bundled with the headset since its April launch.
PSVR and Oculus both use camera-based sensors to track your headset and controllers, though the Rift's camera system is far superior. The Rift itself includes one sensor, Oculus Touch includes a second, and you can optionally buy a third one to move it into true 360-degree tracking (read on).
The Vive's Lighthouse system works almost exactly in reverse of camera-based tracking. Instead of watching over the headset and controls from the outside, it includes two mountable boxes that transmit invisible lasers; photosensors on the headset and controllers then use those lasers to determine their own positions in space. Much like a ship would use a beacon of light from a lighthouse to figure out where it is and where it's going.
This gives the Vive the most accurate tracking of any of the headsets bar none, followed by the Rift, which appears to have good tracking too. PSVR's tracking, at least for its motion controllers, is (again) awful.
Tracking system price
If you ignore our advice and buy PSVR, you'll need to pay around $55 – in addition to the controllers – to get the PS4 Camera sensor.
You'll only need to buy a third Rift sensor if you want full 360-degree tracking. It looks like most developers have designed their Oculus Touch games for 180-degree (two sensors side-by-side) tracking.
The first three headsets are capable of tracking in full 360 degrees. We put an asterisk next to PSVR, though, because of the tracking quality (or lack thereof). The Rift's asterisk is because you'll have to buy that third sensor to do this, and we don't know how many Oculus developers will tailor their games for full 360 VR.
The Vive wins this category emphatically, as the entire system and its content library have been tailored for 360-degree tracking since its conceptual stages, long before launch. The Rift tagged it on after the fact, presumably in response to the Vive's critical reception.
The Vive is practically synonymous with the phrase room-scale VR, where you're free to roam around your room and are only limited by the size of your physical space. It's the most physical and immersive form of VR today.
For this to work, though, you need something to tell you when you're about to smack into a wall or other obstacle. The Vive's Chaperone does this by popping up a virtual wall that represents the edge of your designated playing space.
Oculus Touch also has a Chaperone copycat on the way called Guardian, but we haven't yet tested it.
The Vive has a forward-facing camera that lets you quickly get a view of your surroundings. Technically the Gear VR can do this too, but it's a slower and cumbersome process, compared to the easy double-clicking of the Vive controller.
Read more here.