When I look back to December 2015, VR was all about mysteries and promise. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR were all unreleased, and still shrouded in some mystery. I'd tried them, but they weren't yet available.
Now, all the VR systems have arrived. So many, in fact, that it can be confusing to figure out what to get. Or, whether anyone should get anything at all.
That said, it's still the coolest, most cutting-edge aspect of the tech industry. And that's why it's time to look back at the products released during VR's first big year and see where each of them stand as we approach the precipice of 2017. They're all flawed. They're all pretty weird, and more than a little antisocial... and expensive. But there's brilliance, too. A lot of it.
I had fun in VR. I sweated in VR. I felt deep emotions, met weird avatars and tried to grab a lot of things with controllers. And I did it in a lot of different headsets and systems. Here's a rundown of it all.
Know that all of these systems are already improved from when they were first released thanks to software updates. Look for that to continue -- and with a flood of new competitors, and possibly even replacement models, to hit in the new year.
PCs, game consoles and the world of VR controllers: Bleeding edge, but full of wires
The very best VR of 2016 involved systems you can plug into high-end gaming PCs, or a PlayStation 4. Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are somewhat parallel platforms, each with distinct advantages. PlayStation VR attempts a similar idea on a PS4. If you want to try VR as a full room-exploring dive, with hand controllers that can feel like extensions of your body, these are where to start.
Each of these, however, involves some serious degree of setup: sensors or cameras, wires tethering headsets to your PC or game console, and a level of physical comfort with being blindfolded.
Vive still offers the largest range of VR movement. | Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET
Vive: Full-motion room-scale, aka the holodeck
Months after its April debut, HTC and Valve's collaboration, the Vive, remains the most "full-room" VR experience you can currently have. The Vive tracks space up to 15 feet diagonally, and tracks movement in any direction in that space. An included set of boxes throw light across the room that's received by the headset and wand-like wireless controllers. Vive also has a huge and largely experimental software library via Steam that gives you plenty to do, including efforts from Google such as Google Earth and Tilt Brush.
It's an expensive proposition, at $800 (plus a PC), but the Vive is the best way to explore a Star Trek-like holodeck level of immersion in VR. Keep in mind, though, that the considerable cable tangle running to your PC requires some maintenance. Don't trip.
- • Why it's great: It creates that holodeck feeling better than anything else.
- • Where it falls short: Steam is expansive but it's hard to find gems. There are lots of wires.
- • What to expect in 2017: Vive's 2017 outlook might involve some new hardware refinements, but like most VR platforms, expect a large focus on software and compatible PCs to be the biggest push. VR in 2017 will be about convincing more people to adopt, and get more developers to hop onboard.
Vive controller (left) vs. Oculus Touch controller (right). Touch has refined buttons and finger movement. | Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET
Oculus Rift: Amazing controllers
Oculus late-launched its Touch controllers in December, after the Rift arrived back in March. Finally, the Rift is the package it was supposed to be in the first place, mixing head-tracking and hand controls into one package.
The Touch controllers feel more advanced, like borderline extensions for your fingers. But Oculus' room-tracking system involves setting up several camera sensors at once, resulting in spottier tracking performance than the Vive. It can do fuller room-tracking with three camera sensors, but it's not as easy to set up.
The Oculus Store is full of its own unique games and entertainment, including sculpting and painting apps and well produced offerings from major game studios. Oculus is in a strange place, though. The company straddles mobile and PC systems, and a shift in CEOs suggests Oculus might keep evolving to fit Facebook. Right now, the Touch and Rift together costs the same as the HTC Vive.
- • Why it's great: Unique library of apps, and fantastic controllers.
- • Where it falls short: Not as great at full-room holodeck as the Vive.
- • What to expect in 2017: Touch just arrived. Oculus will build a library that supports those controllers, and extend compatibility to more PCs. 2017, for the Rift, will be about getting more people to buy what's already here.
The PSVR looks good, costs less. | Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET
PlayStation VR: More affordable, but still expensive
The "budget priced" PSVR still amounts to a $400-$500, £350 or AU$550 outlay, if you can get one, plus a PS4 game console. That's not cheap, but it means you can get a full system from scratch for $750, £650 or AU$900 -- much less than the all-in price of the PC-based VR systems above. But its headset and the games already offered by Sony deliver near-PC-level VR gaming, an impressive feat. Sony chose to stick with older PlayStation Move controllers to handle hand motions, and while they work, they're far less elegant and accurate.
The PlayStation 4 Pro promises better performance with VR software, but how much will it make a difference? Sony's VR seems like it's arrived mid-generation. Whether its hardware can survive rapid changes from the rest of the industry remains to be seen.
- • Why it's great: Near-PC-level living room VR at a fraction of the price.
- • Where it falls short: PSVR is best when seated -- the room tracking from the camera isn't great. Likewise, the Move controllers don't handle hand tracking as smoothly as the Vive or Rift does.
- • What to expect in 2017: Don't be surprised if Sony offers better hand controllers and room tracking sensors as add-ons in the near future.
Mobile VR: Limited, but where the future is heading
Cheap VR headsets that work by connecting a phone have been around for a couple of years. This year, the best-in-class Samsung Gear VR was joined by the also-promising Google Daydream View. Gear VR vs. Daydream is the real decision to make. But let's not forget all the other cheap novelty headsets, basically a frame and a pair of lenses, that work with most phonesand a growing number of apps.
Apps like NYTimes VR, Jaunt, Within and YouTube connect to 360-degree videos, some of them in 3D, that you can look around at. Is this really VR? Sure, why not? Most people will see 360-degree videos before they ever play a VR game. And with growing partnerships aiming to deliver better video, even streaming video, with rapidly improving 360-degree cameras, it'll keep being a major part of what we think of as the VR landscape.
Mobile VR is still what I'd recommend to most people. It's easy to share, and there are enough good games to try for a few minutes.
Nearly two years later, Gear VR still impresses. | Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET
Samsung Gear VR: The best mobile library
The Gear VR may have cooled down once Samsung's flagship Note 7 and its exploding batteries were vanished, but the Gear VR platform remains the best library of apps in mobile. The Gear VR works with Samsung phones going back to the Note 4, and hundreds of games in Oculus' mobile app store serve up some great experiences, especially in video. It lacks a bundled remote control, but a Bluetooth game controller can be paired for many titles.
- • What's great: Its huge library of apps.
- • Where it falls short: The touchpad gets annoying. Only works with Samsung phones.
- • What to expect in 2017: Samsung promises a new Gear VR, possibly as soon as Mobile World Congress this coming February.
Daydream: All about that remote. | Photo by Josh Miller/CNET
Google Daydream View: Dark horse rising in mobile
Google's answer to the Gear VR, and in many ways it feels the same. But with the Daydream View, Google's affordable VR trajectory may be rising very quickly. The headset is smaller and cozier, but may not feel as comfortable to wear for some. The Daydream View only works with a few phones for now -- Google's own Pixel and the Moto Z and Z Force phones -- but expect many more partners to arrive and expand Daydream's reach.
Similarly, there aren't many apps to play with yet, but there are some standouts that tie directly into Android, like YouTube and Google Street View. The best part of Daydream View is its included wireless remote, which acts like a motion-sensing magic wand in apps so you can navigate.
- • What's great: Included remote; compact design is easy to use; hooks into Google apps.
- • Where it falls short: Far fewer apps than Gear VR.
- • What to expect in 2017: More phones that work with it, and a lot more apps, soon.
My final recommendation (for now):
You might want to see what's announced at CES (January 3-9) before investing on one of the products listed above. But if you need to hit a Christmas or Hanukkah deadline, or you have a gift card burning a hole in your pocket, here are my recommendations:
- • For the best value for money, get the PlayStation VR.
- • If you want the best phone VR, get the Gear VR.
- • If you have a Pixel, get the Daydream View.
- • If you like PC VR and have tons of room, go with the Vive. Or pick the Oculus Rift for its awesome controllers and learn to adjust.
In other words, every platform has something going for it. Whatever you choose, you'll find something worthwhile. But they all have limitations, too. You could adopt now... but you're really also fine waiting. VR isn't for everyone yet. But it's real, and it's not going anywhere.