The age of virtual reality is upon us (again) with a torrent of devices and content having launched throughout 2016, with many more expected for 2017.
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 2017.
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, with bespoke Oculus Touch controllers costing £189. You will also need a high-spec PC to run Oculus Rift, however, and this isn't included in the £549 asking price for the kit.
Oculus Rift is definitely in the premium VR category.
- Buy it now for£549 on Amazon.co.uk or $599 on Amazon.com
- Oculus Rift review: The VR revolution begins here
Like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive is a full system VR experience that requires a powerful PC to run.
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 world. 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 costing in excess of £700. It is available at Currys PC World and Game, as well as Amazon.
- Buy it now for £759 on Amazon.co.uk or $799 on Amazon.com
- HTC Vive review: An experience that's out of this world
Sony PlayStation VR
The headset itself is just £349 ($399) 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 is a hearty line-up of content available from launch, with more than 70 games and apps released in the launch window of a few months - many are already available. PlayStation VR Worlds has several mini-games and experiences, including The London Heist. Other games include RIGS, The Playroom VR, Batman: Arkham VR and the fantastic Battlezone.
PlayStation VR removes plenty of barriers to virtual reality because it's an accessory to an existing platform. It brings immersive gaming to your existing console and is widely available.
- Buy it now for £349 on Amazon.co.uk or $629 on Amazon.com
- PlayStation VR review: Affordable virtual reality for the gamers
Samsung Gear VR
There have been a few 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 very high resolution displays, this translates into slick visuals.
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, although the latest model, which was launched with the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, comes with an adapter so former Samsung phones are compatible too.
Gear VR opens the door to mobile devices, but you'll need to supply the Samsung smartphone.
- Buy it now for £60 on Amazon.co.uk or $95 on Amazon.com
- Samsung Gear VR Consumer Edition review: The stepping-stone to Oculus proper
Google Daydream View
Daydream is the next-generation of VR from Google and the headset is appropriately called Daydream View. Where the original Cardboard concept was about accessibility and laying the foundations for VR content via your smartphone, Daydream is the future for Google and Android virtual reality.
Daydream is only available in the form of Google's own headset, the Daydream View, priced at £69 in the UK, $79 in the US. The View requires a Daydream-ready phone to operate - such as Google's own Pixel and Pixel XL handsets - but comes with a remote in the box. More phones, like the Moto Z are slowly adding support for this growing platform.
The big advantage that Daydream View offers is comfort, built from a soft material rather than hard plastics like many of the rivals. There's a wide range of content, now better organised than it was previously on the Google Cardboard days.
Google Cardboard was first unveiled in 2014, as 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 a VR platform from Google, now superseded by Daydream.
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.
Huawei VR headset
Google's Daydream platform is about to offer up more devices from more manufacturers and Huawei has been the first to announce, giving you more choice.
The Huawei VR headset looks a lot like the Gear VR from Samsung, but works with the Daydream platform from Google, including support for the remote control. Presumably it will be specifically designed to work with Huawei devices and we suspect the forthcoming Huawei P10 would be on that list.
There's no launch date or price, but we expect to learn more at Mobile World Congress 2017, so should have more details soon.
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 or devices. It takes the form of a pair of glasses, which you wear rather more conventionally than others.
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.
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. It only works with the LG G5, however, which is likely to limit its appeal.
- Buy it now for £69 on Amazon.co.uk or $99 on Amazon.com
- LG 360 VR preview: A unique perspective on mobile VR
Homido falls into the category of devices that give you a more substantial piece of headset 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 £40, 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.
- Buy it now for £40 on Amazon.co.uk or $50 on Amazon.com
- Homido is a universal VR headset for your phone
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.
A Development Edition headset is currently available to buy for $3,000 in the US and Canada. It is also now available in the UK, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland and New Zealand.
- Buy it now for £2,719 on Microsoft Store.
- Microsoft HoloLens preview: An augmented vision that's still very much in the future
The Sulon Q VR headset was unveiled during GDC 2016 in San Francisco and 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.