Virtual reality arrived like a lion, with tremendous momentum that dominated conversations in gaming for months ahead of and immediately following the launch of the major headsets. Since the incredible wave of hype on which the hardware crested into our collective consciousness the conversation has become somewhat more muted, but make no mistake - VR is alive and well, and new games and hardware iterations are constantly materializing, slowly working the transformation from niche novelty to substantial mainstay.
Part of the continued success of VR has blossomed out of non-VR applications. Fields like healthcare, where VR is helping to explore and map the human body and being used as a powerful teaching tool, or as diverse as tourism, architecture, or the automotive industry, have all found fascinating utility for VR technology. But VR games have also continued to multiply and evolve, so that all three of the major headsets now come with an impressive built-in library and more full scale games that aren’t just tech demos or the euphemistically labeled ‘experiences.’ But each headset also offers something slightly different, and each excels in some areas but is weak in others. So if you want to jump onto this thrilling VR bandwagon, which headset is for you?
- Find the best graphics cards for PC gaming to upgrade your rig for VR
- Or read out guide on how to build a gaming PC that’s VR ready
- Or get a PlayStation Pro bundle deal for your new PSVR headset
The Rift was the headset that spearheaded the modern virtual reality renaissance. Way back when it was a Kickstarter project that was more promise than substance, the Rift ignited imaginations with visions of a virtual future and demonstrated that consumer-scale VR was possible. Through a slew of prototypes and iterations, huge injections of investment capital and an eventual $2 billion buyout by Facebook, the Rift has become the best destination for serious gaming in VR for those of us without infinite disposable income.
While the early prototypes and first retail versions of the Rift were notably lacking in terms of motion tracking and room scale capabilities, those weaknesses have been fully patched up in the latest iteration of the hardware, and the price has continued to drop. The Rift now comes with room scale functionality and a pair of its excellent touch controllers (easily the best VR controllers available) in its vanilla package, and at less than $400. It also has a massive and constantly expanding library of great games, ranging from multiplayer standouts like Echo Arena to sprawling single-player experiences like Skyrim VR. While Oculus has gone out of its way to say that they’re against exclusivity in VR titles and want VR to be as open and democratic as possible, there are still some excellent games that are only available on their headset, like Insomniac’s Edge of Nowhere or the fantasy action adventure Chronos.
The Rift is midway between the Vive Pro and PSVR in terms of price point (and still $100 cheaper than even the base Vive), but offers a crisp 2160 x 1200 resolution, great roomscale (upgradable to proper 360 degree scale with the purchase of a third sensor) and, most importantly for VR, a 90hz refresh rate. It’s excellent, proven hardware that’s come out of a long process of tweaking and refinement, and it has the advantage of being attached to PC hardware, meaning the performance ceiling is incredibly high.
The HTC Vive Pro
Earlier this year, HTC provided an upscale, much improved new model of its Vive headset, the Vive Pro, and created an elite niche for users looking for the very best in virtual reality and willing to pay a significant premium to experience it. If you can afford it, there’s no question that the the Vive Pro is the best current option for top-shelf VR, though you’ll pay nearly double the price of the Rift (and the vanilla Vive looks like a tough sell at a hundred dollars more than Oculus offering).
So what does your nearly $800 get you? The refresh rate remains, like the vanilla Vive and the Rift, at a blistering 90hz, but the resolution of the Pro’s stereo screens has been upped to 2880 x 1600. The Vive Pro takes advantage of HTC’s superior Lighthouse room scale technology; while finding places to mount the sensors high on your walls means finding a suitable space for VR in your home can be a bit more difficult than with the Rift, whose sensors can sit on any flat surface and can be angled so that height isn’t a concern, Lighthouse tracking is second to none and the Pro allows for a larger play space. HTC also sells a separate wireless adapter for Vive, which does away with one of the most annoying aspects of room scale, the constant danger of getting tangled up with or tripping over the headsets cables.
The Vive Pro is hands down the best HMD currently available, and while the improvements are certainly noticeable, they’re not revolutionary. Whether they’re worth an additional $400 outlay largely comes down to your budget, and how much you want to be an early adopter of cutting edge VR tech.
Sony’s foray in to gaming virtual reality is the most mainstream approach and is priced appropriately. The PlayStation VR HMD only displays at 1920x1080 resolution, which in VR is a fairly significant (though not devastating) downgrade, but it also boasts the fastest refresh rate of the three major headsets at 120hz. That said, this isn’t the headset for tech snobs or those looking for the bleeding edge of virtual reality technology; PSVR is a play to get virtual reality into more homes and introduce it to the console base, loosening the PC technocracy’s stranglehold. Take a look at the best PlayStation VR bundle deals here, if you want to know more.
The major appeal of PSVR is the price and accessibility. Not only is the headset itself the cheapest of the big three, but it’s attached to the PS4, an affordable console that can be had for a fraction of the price of even a mid-range gaming PC. Plus, PSVR is far and away the easiest of the three options to set up, another critical spoke in the wheel of its mainstream strategy. The only major stumbling block is that Sony’s HMD relies on its aging PlayStation camera and Move Controllers, which means room scale is less impressive and tracking is more suspect than the competition (and the Move controllers are definitely in last place in terms of comfortable grip and ease of use).
That said, PSVR has a great library of games, including some really impressive exclusives like Resident Evil 7, and if you already own a PS4, have an aging PC that’s less than ideal for the demands of virtual reality, or want to experience VR but don’t have a ton of extra cash to invest, it’s a great choice that will give you a ‘full blown’ virtual experience at a wallet-friendly price. And Sony seems committed to supporting it going forward, having already released an updated model with some welcome design changes and performance improvements.
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