We'll be the first to admit that a virtual-reality session isn't terribly conducive to bonding with new friends in the dorm. But, hey, a few of us here at Engadget are introverts, so you don't need to explain to us the value of strapping on a headset and momentarily blocking out the stress of classes and meeting new people. Included in our back-to-school guide are many of the usual suspects, like the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Daydream View. We also recommend the optional Rift and Gear VR controllers, as well as games like Rock Band VR and Farpoint. Enjoy your escape from the real world, but remember to take a social break from time to time.
PSVR launch bundle
PSVR Launch bundle - $499
We get it, it’s hard to see all of the open-mouthed hype about how amazing VR is without wanting to have a system of your own. But between the pricey headset and thousand-plus bucks for the PC you’ll need to run it, it’s well out of most people’s reach -- apart from that one kid in class whose parents own a yacht and basically buy them whatever they want, whenever they want.
If you’re already rocking a PlayStation 4, however, then you can get into VR for $499. That’s still a lot but more affordable than with any comparable system. Sony offers a launch bundle that includes one PSVR headset, a PlayStation Camera, two Move controllers, a demo disc and a copy of VR Worlds. That’s everything that you need to get going, plus five VR demonstrations to showcase the technology’s potential.
Google - $51+
While the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR are all fine virtual reality headsets, they each cost hundreds of dollars and require additional hardware to boot. The next best option is to get a VR headset powered by your phone, and Google’s Daydream View is a standout in its class. For $80 you get a headset made from soft, lightweight materials, along with a handy motion controller. Samsung’s similar Gear VR headset has a larger roster of games, but it’s also more expensive ($129 including the controller) and its chunky plastic covering is noticeably heavier. Besides, Daydream’s library will grow larger over time as Google continues to invest in its budding VR platform.
HTC - $800
HTC has produced what’s probably the best VR headset out there, offering quality that no other company can beat. It is, however, pretty damn expensive, setting you back $800 -- although that bundle includes two controllers and two base stations. With that, you’re able to enjoy “whole room” VR, letting you roam across your dorm -- or at least as far as the bundle of wires connected to the back of your head will stretch.
It helps that HTC and its partner, Valve, have been working hard on developing a wide range of VR titles and experiences. Viveport will enable you to journey through a wide variety of environments and games that’s sure to cater to each of your new buddies. Oh, and if you’re looking for a new way to make friends in the early stages of campus life, Star Trek: Bridge Crew is included as a pack-in title. And, let’s be honest, this is the sort of game that’s an order of magnitude better when played with pals.
Tracker for the Vive
HTC - $100
Okay, so you've invested in a HTC Vive and a VR-ready PC, what next? Impress your friends with a Vive Tracker. This $100, three-pronged attachment can turn almost anything into a physical VR peripheral. For the most part, that means third-party controllers; at CES, we saw a bunch of prototypes including guns, cameras and baseball bats. HTC's wand controllers are great, but sometimes they don't feel or control like an object in the real world. The way you hold a Canon DSLR, for instance, is nothing like your grip on the hilt of a sword. With a Vive Tracker, you can have both hands gripped around something that looks and weighs like a Leica, complete with object motion tracking.
Touch controllers for Oculus Rift
Oculus - $95
If you own an Oculus Rift for gaming and can scrounge up $100, you’re going to want a set of Oculus Touch controllers. There’s also a hefty savings to be had if you’re in the market for buying a Rift and Touch bundle after recent markdowns. The controllers took forever to launch, but we found them to be wonderfully futuristic devices for VR and even make decent gamepads. The controllers are intuitive to use and offer smooth, precise performance, making them perfect for games from puzzlers to shooters. You’ll also find them comfortable and lightweight for extended gaming sessions -- more so than the Vive or Playstation VR’s controllers. Unlike with the Vive, however, don’t expect true room-scale VR.
Gear VR controller
Samsung - $39.90+
If you already have a Samsung Gear VR, do yourself a favor and get the Gear VR controller too. It makes the mobile VR experience that much more immersive, allowing you to manipulate objects with your virtual hand, which makes gaming sessions that much easier. It’s lightweight, ergonomic and best of all, only $39.
Backpack for SLRs, DSLRs or... VR gear!
Amazon Basics - $26.95+
Studying photography, or even just having it as a hobby as a student, feels like a constant drain on your finances. Between a camera body, tripod, lenses, filters and batteries, you could easily rinse your bank account before the term begins. Scrimping on a camera bag isn’t wise either, since it’s the only thing standing between your pricey gear and the hustle and bustle of modern life.
AmazonBasics offers a dirt-cheap and fairly sturdy bag if your budget won’t stretch to a fancier Lowepro or Kata. Sure, it’s not going to be as well-padded as a higher-end piece of kit, but for less than $30, who can complain? It may actually have something over on those more premium offerings, too, thanks to its highly central compartment. As a bonus, the front pouch can house a 13-inch laptop while side straps hold your tripod or umbrella for longer trips.
PSVR showcase and charging stand
Collective Minds - $35
Dorms can get disorganized pretty quickly -- especially if you have a bunch of video game wires and accessories strewn about. The PSVR Showcase stand will do double duty keeping your virtual reality headset, a pair of headphones, DualShock 4 gamepads and PlayStation Move wands all in one place. Better yet, it’ll even keep the controllers and wands charged so that when the mood strikes, you’re ready for action. Unfortunately, it doesn’t address the problem of how wired the PSVR itself is.
Rock Band 4 wireless Fender guitar/controller
Harmonix / Fender - $50
Admittedly, Rock Band isn't the phenomenon it used to be. The age of plastic instruments is over, and has been replaced with… well, not much, to be honest. And that's why Rock Band deserves a second chance, especially if you're a college student looking to bring your dorm- or housemates together. Rock Band 4 is the latest (and maybe last) game in the franchise, with the best support yet from developer Harmonix: New songs and features are being added, and the game still supports group multiplayer, unlike its closest rival Guitar Hero Live.
If you're ready to get the band back together, you'll need some fresh instruments. The wireless Fender Stratocaster is a good place to start, since it ditches the annoying cables that are likely to trip up your alcohol-addled friends. The plastic peripheral is also (reasonably) well-built, capable of withstanding the occasional spilled drink and wayward drumstick. Oh, and you can use it to play Rock Band VR, provided you have an Oculus Rift headset and Touch controller.
Aim Controller ('Farpoint' bundle)
Sony - $160
You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel both when you’re bearing down on legions of marauding alien insects in Farpoint and when trying to get the seat in the exact center of the lecture hall. But with the PSVR and its rifle-sized aim controller, you’ll be battling bugs better than most Space Marines in no time -- you’re on your own for seating, unfortunately.
The kit includes both the light gun, which works the same way as Sony’s handheld wand controllers, and the Farpoint game itself. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to provide your own PSVR headset and motion-tracking camera to complete the setup. Also, be warned that due to high demand you might have trouble even getting your hands on one -- and if you do, you can expect to pay more than double the original $80 list price.
Stealth 350VR gaming headset
Turtle Beach - $54+
There are tons of gaming headsets, but only a few were designed specifically for VR. Enter the Turtle Beach Stealth 350VR: a set of cans shaped to match VR goggles from Sony, HTC and Oculus. That means some extra horizontal clearance and a gully in the top padding through which you run VR cables. Sound quality is of course still important, so the headphones come with 50mm speakers and over-ear cushions for "crisp highs and thundering lows." There's also a detachable noise-cancelling microphone, so you can chat to your buddies while playing Star Trek: Bridge Crew and Elite: Dangerous.