We tested high-end virtual reality headsets that have to be tethered to a computer or game console, plus cheaper options that use a smartphone.
Virtual reality is the future.
More powerful systems come with hand-held controllers that track hand motion. This allows you to hold, move and manipulate objects in the virtual world. Simpler systems have controls built into the headset, allowing basic interaction, such as selecting menu options. The most basic systems rely on a mobile phone to do all the heavy lifting and so are limited in being able to create interactive environments.
The amount and type of sensors – such as accelerometers, motion detectors, and gyroscopes – determines how much of your motion is captured and, hence, how far you can “move” in the virtual world.
The HTC Vive, in particular, has “room-scale” VR, meaning you can walk around, rather than stand in one place. This is useful as the play area for most systems is roughly a metre in diameter. The PlayStation VR allows you to walk a step or so in any direction.
Simpler systems let you look around but, generally, you can’t move anywhere or interact with anything.
The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift are the most powerful VR systems, followed by the PlayStation VR (PSVR). They need to be tethered to high-powered computers (or in the case of PSVR, a PS4 game console) and are covered in sensors to detect a comparatively huge amount of motion.
But the tether means it’s not a complete range of motion. Also the full sensor array and cables make the headsets heavy. However, as our user comfort scores show, heavy doesn’t mean uncomfortable.
The more powerful the system, the more complicated the set-up. For example, the PSVR uses a wired intermediary box between your TV and the PS4. There are two HDMI cables plugged into the back of this box (one goes into the TV and the other into the PS4) and in the front, HDMI and aux cables run to the VR headset. This means you end up with a mess of cables no matter what.
In contrast, simpler devices have a headset for mounting a mobile phone into. Open the app, plug the phone into the headset, and away you go. Some of these headsets have controls on the side but most don’t.
More powerful systems are also pricier. The average price of the top three systems is $1059, compared with an average of $128 for the next five headsets. Those prices don’t include the cost of the required computer, PS4 or smartphone needed to run the systems.
Experiences are like movies where you can look around. For example, you might stand in a shark cage and be lowered to the sea floor, or sit in the front seat of a rollercoaster. One of the most basic experiences uses Google Street View to let you to stand beneath the Eiffel Tower or “walk” the streets of Tokyo.
Games give you control. You interact with the virtual environment and do tasks. This could have you seated in a spaceship’s cockpit or fighting with swords. The greater the level of interaction, the more sophisticated (and expensive) the system needs to be.
When you play games on a computer or console, characters are constrained by the screen. In a VR game characters stand the same height as you, and look you right in the eye. But it also allows different perspectives. For example, you may play as a child, looking up as all the other characters are taller than you.
In a PSVR game, where you play a Guy Ritchie-style gangster, you can pick up, light and then smoke a cigar. The system even reacted to the sound of exhaling and simulated the smoke being blown into the air. Seems silly to get excited about virtual smoking, but in VR even simple actions can seem amazing.
Games aren’t the pinnacle of virtual interactivity. Engineering, architecture and medicine are also using VR to teach techniques in a controlled environment.
So when playing games or experiences where you appear to be moving, your body will try and compensate. It’s common to fall over or lose your balance. Taking the visor off and closing your eyes helps, but recovering can take time.
If you wear glasses, then you may also have trouble wearing and using the headsets. Some can’t accommodate glasses, and those that do can be uncomfortable and hard to focus with.
Moreover, depending on what eye condition you have, you may not be able to fully experience virtual reality. VR uses similar technology to 3D movies, if you can’t see the latter, then you won’t be able to get the full effect of the former.
Augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality are similar to VR but different in application. Both project images on to the real world rather than creating a virtual one. Augmented reality overlays images on what you see. For example, overlaying street names while you explore a city.
Mixed reality interacts with real space and creates 3D structures you can walk around. For example, an architect could create a 3D model on a table in their office, walk around it, change parts and even zoom in on details.
Microsoft’s new HoloLens mixed reality system is not far off a consumer-level release and the latest developer releases have looked astounding.