The age of virtual reality is upon us (again) with a torrent of devices and content launching throughout 2016.
There has been a buzz around virtual reality (VR) for the past few years. Some of this has come from the lengthy development of devices like Oculus Rift, but also through a growing interest in what we'll be able to get VR to do in the modern era.
The idea of VR isn't new. It's been circulating in the tech space for a number of years, but recently, the technology has broken through some of the long-standing barriers. Enabling access has helped, with devices like Google's Cardboard opening the door for anyone with a smartphone, right up to demonstrating what a fully-fledged premium system like HTC Vive will be capable of. We now have the power in home computers for lifelike virtual environments and this makes it a much more exciting time for VR.
So, without further ado, we've listed some of the top VR systems available. Their prices range dramatically, and some haven't actually been officially launched yet, but they're all worth being aware of, as you'll be seeing a lot more of VR in 2016.
Oculus Rift has probably commanded more headlines than any other VR system. First launched as a Kickstarter project and then acquired by Facebook, Oculus Rift is one of the most exciting VR systems you'll find.
The system comprises a headset that's loaded with sensors, offering a display for each eye and integrated headphones. It comes with a camera to add more movement detection information and initially ships with an Xbox One controller prior to bespoke Oculus Touch controllers launching later in 2016. You will also need a high-spec PC to run Oculus Rift, however, and this isn't included in the £500 asking price for the kit.
The result is a canny VR system and, from what we've experienced so far, one that's capable of creating some amazing VR worlds and experiences. It's now shipping to those who originally pre-ordered, although the demand means you'll be waiting until at least August if you order now. Oculus Rift is definitely in the premium VR category.
Like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive is a full system VR experience that requires a powerful PC to run. It too is now available, but while there were some shipping delays, wait time is less than its direct rival.
HTC Vive is different from other VR systems because it gives you freedom to roam around a room. While other systems will allow you some movement, HTC Vive uses IR sensors mounted on walls to map your location in the physical space, integrating this into the virtual space. That allows for freedom of movement other systems currently don't offer. The downside is that you'll also need a big enough play space to use it in that fashion.
The headset integrates a range of sensors, presenting the slick visuals to your eyes and you have to wear additional headphones to complete the picture. There are bespoke Vive hand controllers and their locations are also mapped within the 3D space, offering plenty of versatility when it comes to immersion and interactivity.
We've experienced a wide range of different environments within HTC Vive, from climbing Everest to maintenance of robots in a Portal-style setting and we've been blown away. However, setting the device up is tricky, so sensor placement is paramount.
The HTC Vive is also the costliest option at £689 in the UK, $799 in the US.
Previously known as Project Morpheus, this headset has been rechristened PlayStation VR - somewhat fitting considering it is not PC but PlayStation 4 driven.
Rather than presenting a complete VR system, PS VR is an accessory for the PS4 console, meaning it will be less costly to own than something like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive when it arrives in October 2016.
The headset itself will be just £349 ($399) - a lot less than equivalent rivals - and the fact that the console is less pricey than a high-end gaming PC keeps costs down further.
PlayStation VR uses the same technologies as the others, although its screen resolution is lower than those used by HTC and Oculus.
It tracks movement of your head and uses the PlayStation Camera, in combination with your regular PS4 controller or PlayStation Move motion controls, to present the VR experience. This is an extension of your PS4, which is likely to see it as an easy VR choice for many.
There will also be a full line-up of content available from launch later this year. PlayStation VR Worlds has several mini-games and experiences, including the London Heist segments we've previously played. Other games will also include RIGS and The Playroom VR.
PlayStation VR removes plenty of barriers to virtual reality because it's an accessory to an existing platform. We expect to hear even more as the year unfolds. PlayStation VR is going to bring immersive gaming to your existing console.
The Sulon Q VR headset was unveiled during GDC 2016 in San Francisco and it could be a big competitor to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in that it runs on a Windows 10 PC architecture. Unlike those headsets though, it doesn't need a high-end PC to run and is completely "tether-free".
Instead it has the processing power built into the device, using AMD technologies to run "console-quality" games and applications, but without any wires needed to connect it to a separate box.
In addition to virtual reality uses, there are lenses on the headset that enable the user to use augmented reality applications too, in a similar way to the Microsoft HoloLens we describe below. These overlay computer graphics onto real-world objects.
There are earbuds built-in that provide spatial 3D audio and embedded noise-cancelling microphones enable voice communication without needing a separate mic add-on.
It all sounds good but we're yet to see the headset in action even though we were previously told "spring". The price is also unannounced as yet, and it could turn out to be rather pricey.
Samsung Gear VR
Samsung was one of the early movers on VR, launching the Gear VR headset, co-developed with Oculus, and designed to support a smartphone, rather than needing a connection to a PC or console.
There have been a couple of versions of Gear VR, supporting a number of different smartphone models from Samsung, with the handsets neatly sliding into the tray at the front. Internally there are lenses to split the display between your eyes and with Samsung's latest devices offering a high resolution display, this translates into slick visuals.
Samsung Gear VR has been used in a number of commercial settings, such car showrooms, but with Samsung offering a range of content from Oculus, it's an easy option for those with a Samsung handset.
Gear VR is available for around £100, and there's an optional controller too, which you can get for about £70. You'll need to make sure it's going to fit your chosen Samsung smartphone, however, with the newly launched Galaxy S7 and S7 edge devices claimed to be best. Gear VR opens the door to mobile devices, but you'll need to supply the Samsung smartphone.
OnePlus Loop VR
Android smartphone manufacturer OnePlus has a similar headset to the Gear VR in the shape of the Loop VR. It looks similar but is capable of working with "most handsets between 5 and 6-inches".
You slot the smartphone in the front of the device, which is padded and comes with a head strap for comfort, and in many ways it works like a posh version of Google Cardboard.
What's significantly different about the OnePlus Loop VR though is that it is free. OnePlus has made 30,000 headsets and they are available on a first come first served basis. Only shipping costs need to be paid, but considering that they start at £2.99 they are hardly likely to break the bank.
As a piece of technology, there's not too much to the Loop VR. It has orthoscopic lenses and 100-degree field of view, but the experience - including motion sensing - is all done by your phone. Naturally, the better the phone the better the experience. The manufacturer would clearly like that to be the OnePlus 3 when it is available.
The OnePlus Loop VR starts to ship on 6 June.
LG 360 VR
The LG 360 VR is a headset that you have to connect to your LG G5 via the USB Type-C cable, rather than slipping your phone into the front as you do with Cardboard. It takes the form of a pair of glasses, which you wear rather more conventionally than others. It's better than Cardboard and other basic systems because you don't have to hold it to your face all the time.
The headset itself has two 1.8-inch IPS displays inside, one for each eye, each with a resolution of 960 x 720 pixels, resulting in 639ppi. Those displays sit behind lenses that can be independently focused (you can't wear glasses and 360 VR at the same time), as well as being able to adjust the width to get the best fit to your face and ensure stereoscopic vision.
The headset also carries the controls for your VR environment, with an ok and back button for basic click navigation. Otherwise, it has motion sensors, to allow you to look around the virtual world you're in. There's also a sensor between your eyes. This detects when the headset is being worn.
When it comes to audio, there's a 3.5mm headphone socket on the underside of the 360 VR headset. If you don't use this, the sound comes out of your smartphone, which may be some distance away, or perhaps in your pocket.
The LG 360 VR is available from some retailers, priced at £200.
Google Cardboard was first unveiled in 2014, quite literally a folding cardboard container into which a smartphone could be placed. The beauty of Google Cardboard is two-fold: firstly, the hardware cost is almost minimal, often free, and secondly, it's universal, supporting a wide range of smartphone models - essentially, anything that will fit into the front and stay secure.
Google Cardboard is something of a breakaway success, allowing people to sample VR content (be that from Google or elsewhere), without having to invest in a more substantial system: Google reports that five million Cardboard viewers have shipped. Google has a range of applications for the device, and has highlighted VR for development and investment in the future. Importantly, Cardboard is not only this cardboard viewer, but also the name of the VR platform from Google.
Cardboard is really an ad hoc VR viewer: there's no head strap and if there was it would be uncomfortable to wear, instead intended to be held to the face to view the content. There are a range of Cardboard apps for content, as well as being able to view 360 environments such as Google Street View or watching 360 content on YouTube.
Cardboard makes perfect sense: if you want to dip your toe into VR, this is a good place to start.
Zeiss VR One and One GX
Optics specialist Zeiss has its own virtual reality headset that converts an iPhone or Android device into an immersive 3D experience. The Zeiss VR One is very similar to Samsung's Gear VR headset, but with a universal design. The VR One features a tray to hold your phone and you'll need the appropriate tray for your handset, be that iPhone 6, SGS6, Sony Xperia Z5 and so on.
The VR One will work with any app that is made for VR headsets such as Cardboard apps, delivering two images, so that each eye is separate and allows for a 3D experience. The VR One has a head strap and the One GX, like Cardboard, is designed for holding to your face. The Zeiss VR One is available now for about £110.
There are many more systems like the Zeiss VR that will accept phones in various forms and offer a similar approach to VR. If you're getting into smartphone-based VR, this is a good way to go.
Homido falls into the category of devices, like the Zeiss VR One, that give you a more substantial piece of hardware, but work in the same way as Google Cardboard.
In this case there's a sprung section on the front into which you can slide your phone, and you can then strap the thing to your head to view your VR content.
In this case it's a little cheaper, so you can get your hands on it for around £50, so if you're a little more of a VR fan and think that Cardboard will get too annoying with the constant handholding, then Homido might be a solution for you. It's cheap, easy and widely available now.
And also consider... Microsoft HoloLens
Microsoft surprised everyone when it entered the world of virtual and augmented reality. It unveiled the Microsoft HoloLens headset, which works with Windows Holographic, a technology that adds 3D images in the world around us all. Technically this is more augmented reality than virtual reality, but it's playing in the same space as some of these other systems.
Microsoft wants to introduce augmented reality objects into every aspect of our world. Obviously, that won't happen with the naked eye, but users wearing HoloLens will be able to see holographic images overlaid onto real objects in front of them (which are projected by laser directly into their eyes). A full Windows 10 system is built into the headset and it runs off a battery, so it's completely untethered.
The headset displays digital images into your real-world field of view. You can then view and even interact with these digitised-objects as if they were in the room with you. Using Kinect-style tech to recognise gestures and voice commands, the system features a 120-degree field of vision on both axis and is capable of high definition visuals.
Currently released as a Development Edition only, HoloLens is something for the future, rather than the right now.