The age of virtual reality is upon us with a torrent of devices and content appearing over the last couple of years.
The idea of VR isn't new of course. 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 the HTC Vive Pro 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 as we cover all bases.
The best VR solutions we'll be covering include:
- Oculus Rift
- HTC Vive
- HTC Vive Pro
- Windows Mixed Reality
- PlayStation VR
- Samsung Gear VR
- Google Daydream View
- and many more...
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 £450/$450 asking price for the kit.
Oculus Rift is definitely in the premium VR category.
Read our full review: Oculus Rift
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. It is available at Currys PC World and Game, as well as Amazon.
Read our full review: HTC Vive
HTC Vive Pro
The HTC Vive Pro is the upgraded and enhanced version of the HTC Vive and is pitched by HTC as the "professional-grade" VR headset. With an increased pixel density, enhanced resolution and improved audio which includes Hi-Res certified headphones and spatial sound capabilities, this headset is the pinnacle of the VR experience.
The HTC Vive Pro needs a powerful machine to run well, but it will truly blow your socks off. This is headset takes the solid foundations of the original Vive headset and improves upon them in every area. It's more comfortable, more visually stunning and offers an incredibly immersive gaming experience.
This headset does come with a hefty price tag though - £799/$799 currently. It's also available to buy on its own - but in order to get it to work you also need to purchase the tracking base stations and controllers at extra expense or with the Vive Pro Starter Kit for £1048/$1099. It's more of an upgrade for current Vive owners than something you'd buy outright unless you have a lot of spare cash. You do get what you pay for though and this headset is no doubt the very best VR experience currently.
Read our full review: HTC Vive Pro review: The best VR experience, bar none... if you can afford it
Acer AH101 Windows Mixed Reality
This is a bit of a Windows Mixed Reality bucket. Windows Mixed Reality is a newcomer to VR, so in many ways is the story of 2017. It needs the Windows 10 Fall Creators update to run, but the idea is to bring VR to the masses, by making the hardware more affordable, the software standard and the PC requirements more accessible.
Although we've seen a number of headsets, we've only reviewed the Acer headset in detail, so it's currently the headset we'd recommend (not all are available - this is still a young section of the market). Acer succeeds in bringing the price down although there are some compromises along the way and the materials do feel a little cheap. The design is good, but there's a little too much light leakage from the back which brings the experience down.
You can get your hands on the Acer headset for around £400/$400 so it's much cheaper than HTC Vive, but with Oculus Rift prices dropping, there's a real decision to be made. The PC requirements are lower, however, but there's also less software or games to use with Windows Mixed Reality. We expect that to change over the next 6 months, but if you buy now, you're very much an early adopter.
Read the full review: Acer AH101 Mixed Reality Headset
Sony PlayStation VR
The headset itself is around £300 ($300) 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 are a hearty line-up of content available, with more than 70 games and apps released in the launch window of a few months. Resident Evil 7, Driveclub VR, Skyrim VR, Doom VFR, Gran Turismo Sport and others all support PS VR.
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.
Read our full review: PlayStation VR
Samsung Gear VR
There have been several 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.
Gear VR opens the door to mobile devices, but you'll need to supply the Samsung smartphone.
Read our full review: Samsung Gear VR Consumer Edition
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 £99 in the UK, $99 in the US. The View requires a Daydream-ready phone to operate - such as Google's own Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 handsets - but there's growing support from phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8, Mate 9 Pro or LG V30.
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.
Read the full review: Google Daydream View
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 reported that five million Cardboard viewers had shipped up to 2016. 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.
Read our full review: Google Cardboard
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.
See current price on Microsoft Store
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, with Microsoft calling it Mixed Reality.
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. 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.
Read our full preview: Microsoft HoloLens