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What are the best Virtual Reality devices?

Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus and Vive are just a few of the upcoming technologies for Virtual Reality. It seems that every week a new company is starting a Kickstarter claiming to be the definitive solution for Virtual Reality (VR), but which headset is the best and who will win the VR Wars?

I could list the various hardware specs for screen resolution, field of view angles or price points, but all of those metrics are subject to change by the time the hardware reaches the market. Currently, only developer versions of VR hardware are available for most models, which is great if you want to start learning VR early. However, most consumers are left wondering which Virtual Reality headset is the best.

Types of Virtual Reality Devices

Instead of focusing on the specifications, let’s focus on the flexibility of the devices, their intended platforms and what their features will be. For the most part, VR headsets fit into one of these three categories:

  1. High-end developer headsets
  2. Existing and proven mobile VR headsets for consumers
  3. The newest and most novel headset concepts

High-end Virtual Reality Developer Headsets

The leading VR headsets in this category include Oculus Rift Crescent Bay, Sony’s Project Morpheus and the Vive, a joint venture with Valve and HTC.  High-end developer VR headsets take some extra know-how to use and are largely designed to work with gaming PCs. This category of VR wearables is focused on providing the same high quality graphics found on current AAA game titles. The headsets are usually pretty large and are tethered to PC via a cable.

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift breathed new air into the VR market when founder Palmer Luckey leveraged his prototype to secure nearly $2.5M on Kickstarter. With the well-known software engineer John Carmack and the resources of Facebook behind it, Oculus Rift has huge potential for commercial success. Oculus Rift is using a platform-agnostic approach and will support Windows, iOX and Linux computers.

HTC Vive

The Vive came as a surprise during GDC 2015, HTC partnered with Valve to produce not only a VR headset but a movement tracking system. The Vive requires several sensors and light arrays called lighthouses to track the user‘s location in the room allowing users to interact within a virtual space.

Project Morpheus

Project Morpheus is a proprietary solution for bringing VR to the Sony Playstation. The system uses a headset, a PS4 camera and the Move controller to provide spatial tracking. The biggest drawback is that consumers may not be interested in investing in hardware which can only run on the Playstation.

Mobile Virtual Reality devices

A mobile VR headset is designed to take advantage of the mini computers we all carry with us each day: our smartphones. Smartphones are pretty powerful; they contain an accelerometer, a high resolution display, several processing cores and an embedded sound system. Generally, the smartphone is clipped into the front of the headset, and the screen is displayed through two lenses to create the appropriate perspective.

Samsung GearVR

Gear VR is the result of Samsung partnering with Oculus. The headset is reasonably priced at $199 but is currently limited to two of Samsung’s products: the Note 4 ($299) and Galaxy S6 ($799). Samsung provides a built-in store with a handful of games and movies that users can watch right out of the box.

Google Cardboard

Google’s Cardboard is the frugal solution for a VR headset. Initially distributed as a novel gift at the Google I/O Conference 2014, the project has taken on a life of its own. At around $30, Google cardboard provides a cardboard template that can be folded into a headset, along with a pair of lens, rubber band and magnet. The SDK is strictly for Android development but that hasn’t stopped iOS developers from using Durvois Dive SDK and using the Cardboard as the headset.

New and novel Virtual Reality wearables

The final category includes headsets designed to use novel technologies such as the FOVE, and Razer’s OSVR. These headsets are trying to provide an additional level of immersion by addressing some of the shortfalls found in the headsets already described.

FOVE

The FOVE is the first VR headset to provide eye tracking technology based on the principle of foveated rendering, in which a screen only has to render high pixel density where the eye is looking. The FOVE can optimize its rendering pipeline by reducing the pixel density where the eye isn’t looking. Since this product is still in the crowdfunding phase, it is hard to know how much this algorithm will improve the VR experience.

OSVR

Razer’s OSVR is touted as an open source solution for VR which is very attractive to hobbyists. Razer has partnered with Leap Motion to provide embedded sensors designed to track hand movement. One of the first things you notice in VR headset is the lack of hand tracking so this may very well be a leap forward in immersive experience design.

Which Virtual Reality device is the BEST?

Each category has interesting features and limitations, but which should you choose? There is no penultimate winner in the VR device wars yet. The key in choosing a VR device lies in your personal intention. Right now it is a software developer’s market because there are no commercially released high-end headsets. So if you are a developer, what is your market: mobile or AAA? If you are looking to develop for mobile VR, don’t focus on the headset — consider your target market and find an SDK that supports the platform you are looking for. On the other hand, if you are planning on making AAA titles, look into Oculus Rift’s SDK; it supports both Unity and Unreal and provides several examples.