Virtual reality (VR) is no longer the technology of science fiction and distant futures. From the most basic of headsets that introduce the user to the potential of VR technologies to those designed for complete VR gaming experiences, a variety of headsets are available to consumers.
Each VR headset has different features that make it more catered to specific user needs. Some are better suited for tech demos and entertainment while others are geared toward software development.
Top 7 Best Rated VR Headsets
The HTC Vive provides an immersive VR experience by turning an entire room into a virtual space for the user to explore. It uses two base-mounted sensors installed around the room, requiring a large play area.
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The Samsung Gear VR headset is designed to provide a complete VR experience for mobile users. This headset is only compatible with Samsung phones, and some applications may require an additional controller.
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Microsoft HoloLens offers a unique “mixed reality” experience that has many practical applications for digital artists and application developers. Its hologram technology lets users see their digital content in the real world.
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The first open-source VR project, the Razer OSVR headset is designed to work with most any PC hardware and software on the market. Though it’s still in its early stages, the Razer OSVR aims to make VR accessible to everyone.
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Funded by a Kickstarter that began in 2012, the Oculus Rift works with the user’s PC to provide a VR experience. Its long development time has allowed creators to produce a library of content that is constantly growing.
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PlayStation VR offers a VR gaming experience exclusive to the PlayStation console. Its relatively easy setup requires the user to plug the headset and the camera into the console, and it works with current PlayStation controllers.
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Google Cardboard is an inexpensive introduction to VR designed to be user-friendly and affordable. It works with the user’s smartphone to display a 360-degree visual experience that works with numerous apps and videos.
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What VR features matter most?
Applications and software
VR is still a fairly new development. Consequently, there are far more applications in development than there are on the market. The types of applications currently available range from high-quality video games to short demo videos, all showcasing the current and future potential of VR technologies.
- Video games: One of the driving factors of VR development is the video game industry. From big-name publishers and companies to independent developers, video game creators are working to unlock the gaming potential of VR.
- Virtual tours: Some applications allow the user to wander around virtual environments. These are currently being used to offer tours of houses, museums and vacation destinations to potential buyers.
- Artist suites: As VR has gained popularity, more developers are creating software to help people build applications for use with VR headsets. Headsets also allow artists to create models in 3-D space to see their work in greater detail.
- Virtual cinema: Numerous VR movies are available for use with current headsets. With 360-degree videos to interactive movies, VR headsets allow the user to experience the new medium of virtual cinema.
Headsets vary greatly when it comes to the quality of video. The developers’ websites should list the specifications and rendering abilities of their products to help consumers make the right purchase decision.
- Resolution: Resolution refers to the number of distinct pixels on the display screen. The greater the resolution, the more impressive the visual will be. Consumers should take note of their headset’s resolution capabilities.
- Refresh rate: A display’s refresh rate is the number of times a display updates its image buffer per second. Higher refresh rates can eliminate latency (otherwise known as lag) in an image and can create a smoother VR experience. The standard rate for VR headsets is 60-90Hz, though some are capable of refreshing images at faster rates.
- Field of view: Field of view refers to how much virtual space a headset user can see. Headsets are still unable to reproduce the depth of vision of the human eye (up to 180 degrees), but a greater field of view can create a more immersive experience.
Not all computers or mobile devices are capable of powering VR headsets. Some require powerful computers, and others only work with specific gaming devices or smartphones. Consumers should always make sure they have compatible hardware for the VR headsets they want to purchase.
- PC requirements: Most PC-compatible VR headsets require high-end video cards and a substantial amount of memory to run smoothly. VR developer websites will often list the PC requirements for their headsets, and these should always be consulted before the consumer purchases a headset.
- Console-specific headsets: Some VR headsets are only compatible with certain brands of video game consoles. A consumer looking to invest in these headsets should also take into account the purchase of a console if they do not already have one.
- Smartphone fit: Mobile headsets that link up with the user’s smartphone may only work with specific phone makes and models. These headsets also tend to consume the battery power at an increased rate, which may be a concern for the user.
Comfort and adjustability
Some VR applications are designed for extended use. Consequently, user comfort is a concern for developers, and most headsets can be adjusted to fit the user. Some even allow for adjusting individual lenses to cater to the user’s visual needs.
- Weight: Most headsets weigh at least one pound, but varying weights across brands can make some more cumbersome than others. Consumers should check the listed weight of VR headsets if weight is a primary concern.
- Straps and padding: Most headsets are held in place by adjustable straps, and almost all of them have some sort of padding around the lenses for user comfort. Adjustability, however, varies across brands. Some are equipped with quick-release buttons for easy use, and some come with options to change cushions around the user’s eyes to find a better fit.
- Visual adjustments: VR headsets are intended to cover the user’s eyes entirely, which may be a problem for users who wear glasses. A few headsets are designed to accommodate users with glasses, and those that do not fit over a user’s glasses often have adjustable lenses to improve image clarity and focus.
Because using VR is not a passive activity, developers are constantly finding new ways to interact with virtual environments. As a result, headsets are made to accommodate different types of controls. Some applications may require a gamepad or motion control devices while others may just need the controls on the headset.
- Built-in controls: Some headsets have controls built into the device. These are usually located on the tops or sides of the headset. Others can register gestures and track the user’s body movements and gestures.
- Gamepads: Video games may require the use of a gamepad along with the VR headset. For console-specific headsets, the user will likely need a brand-specific gamepad that matches their gaming console. PC users will have more gamepad options, especially if they are using an open-source headset.
- Haptic controls: For more complex controls than taps and gestures, VR developers have released or are working on haptic motion controls. These controllers can translate user’s movements more accurately than the tracking on gesture-based controls.
Tracking area requirements
Since VR headsets rely on cameras or sensors to track user movement, many developers will suggest dimensions for an ideal tracking area. Consumers should take into account the suggested tracking area to make sure they have enough room to get the most out of their VR purchase.
- Sensor placement: VR headsets vary regarding recommended placement for the tracking sensors. Those with only one sensor may work for a simple desk setup, but systems that need more than one may require an entire room to provide the best VR experience.
- Clear area: VR headsets usually shut the physical world out completely, and, as a result, users should observe a few safety precautions. Foremost, users should make sure they clear the space of furniture, rugs or other tripping hazards that could pose a problem to someone using a headset in the tracking area.
- Chairs or mats for extended use: For applications that can be used while sitting, the user may want to invest in a comfortable swivel chair to get the most out of the headset’s 360-degree video. Anti-fatigue mats can also be smart additions to any VR setup area if the user is running applications that require standing for extended amounts of time.
What are different types of VR headsets?
Most every VR headset needs a power source, and for many, that source will be the user’s PC. The high-fidelity visuals of VR require high-end hardware, so users may need to upgrade their PCs to ensure compatibility.
Mobile VR headsets run on the user’s smartphone. They are more lightweight and portable than the more complicated VR headsets, though they are not as powerful.
Some gaming headsets plug directly into their compatible video game consoles. These types of headsets work only with their native consoles, and setup is generally easy.
A few VR headsets are complete computers, requiring no power other than the device itself. These headsets allow for increased mobility, though they require charging after extended use.
Who's it for?
Most VR headsets are designed with video gaming in mind, and a few consider gamers to be their target audience.
With so much tech news emphasis on the creative potential of VR, many early adopters of VR headsets are people enthusiastic about the novelty of VR experiences.
Some applications used with VR headsets are designed for digital artists to model their work in 3-D space.
Most VR headsets come with development kits for software creators. Developers who see VR as the future of the tech industry will want a headset to see its capabilities.
There is currently a host of educational applications for VR users. Students in a classroom can take virtual field trips, and technical schools can use virtual models for classes like automotive repair.
The Oculus Rift is a head-mounted virtual reality display optimized for video games. It works with a Windows PC, and the user may need to upgrade their computer to fit the Oculus Rift’s requirements.
- Extensive library: Because development for the Oculus Rift began earlier than most headsets, there are already a number of games, virtual reality films and applications available. Every new headset comes with the game Lucky’s Tale, and even more are in development.
- PC compatibility: The Oculus Rift website has a compatibility tool available for user download to make sure their PC meets the systems requirements. The site also has a link to Oculus Rift-ready PCs available for purchase.
- Oculus Touch: Oculus Rift works with a standard Xbox PC controller, but a new system of motion control, the Oculus Touch, is in the early stage of development. This controller will track gestures and recreate them in 3-D virtual space.
- Lightweight and adjustable: Weighing just over one pound, the Oculus Rift headset is designed to be light and comfortable. Padding and Velcro straps on the top and sides of the headset allow for easy adjustments. Other cushions around the eyes are available to find a matching fit, though the base product only comes with one.
- Application beyond gaming: Though it is designed primarily as a gaming device, people have been using the Oculus Rift for virtual touring, education in virtual classrooms, immersive therapy and architecture modeling.
- Forum and community: Oculus Rift has more users than any other gaming VR platform. As a result, there are many user forums and community support blogs available through the Oculus website.
- Best for Oculus Rift is best for people looking for a VR video game experience that is already up and running with more applications in development.
Originally announced as “Project Morpheus,” PlayStation VR delivers a gaming experience with the latest software designed for the PlayStation.
- Exclusive games: PlayStation VR launches with a selection of games exclusive to the platform. Established developers in the game industry are creating games from the ground-up that are optimized for use only on PlayStation VR.
- PlayStation VR Aim Controller: The PlayStation VR Aim Controller is a gun-shaped accessory currently in development. It uses motion control to make first-person shooter games more immersive. The device is also compatible with current PlayStation Dualshock 4 and Playstation Move controllers.
- Quick-release button: Unlike most headsets, Playstation VR has a button designed for easy access. This means that the users do not have to readjust their headsets every time they put them on.
- Designed with clarity in mind: A recent upgrade from a five-inch to a 5.7-inch display has given the user a 100-degree field of vision. A Full HD 1920X1080 display means that it will have one of the sharpest image renderings available. PlayStation VR also runs at 120Hz, the highest frame refresh rate on the market. This rate coupled with the unit’s nine head-tracking LEDs virtually eliminates latency.
- Multiplayer accessible: Because it can render two different images simultaneously, PlayStation VR can display one image on the headset and a different one on the television. Sony stated that this design choice was intended to make PlayStation VR a more social experience.
- Cinematic mode: All PlayStation 4 games can be played in “cinematic mode” with the PlayStation VR. This mode simulates a VR experience with the headset’s screen even for games and applications that are not built for VR.
- Best for Because the PlayStation VR can be used only with the PlayStation 4, it is designed for users who already own a PlayStation console.
Developed by HTC and Valve Corporation, the Vive is a VR headset designed to use “room scale” technology to turn an entire room into a 3D virtual space with the aid of base-mounted sensors that connect to the user’s PC.
- Room scale VR: The HTC Vive uses sensors the user places around their room to render a VR space that the user can explore by walking around in it. This allows the user to see the game and applications from every available angle.
- Large library of short games and demos: Though there are more thorough gaming experiences on the horizon, the HTC Vive has many shorter VR experiences available for download now. These demo-length games allow the user to explore a range of applications in short, digestible amounts of time.
- Controllers: The HTC Vive comes with two haptic wireless controllers. They feature 24 sensors each that track the subtleties of movement and gestures to make interacting with virtual worlds feel more natural.
- Installation service: In select cities, users have a professional installation option. After deciding on the optimal room setup, the team will connect the HTC Vive’s component cables to the user’s PC and mount the base stations for the room’s sensors.
- Smartphone service: A phone service application is currently in development to allow the user to receive calls and messages without leaving VR.
- Best for The HTC Vive is best for users who have the space for a full 360-degree VR experience.
Google Carboard is a VR platform designed to fit a user’s smartphone. A head-mounted viewer made out of cardboard makes the product a low-cost introduction to the application of VR technologies.
- Low cost: Because the standard model of Google Cardboard viewer is made of literal cardboard, it is the cheapest peripheral on the market. The user, however, must have a smartphone to use with viewer.
- Customizable: There are numerous different models of the viewer available from Google and third party sellers. The basic cardboard viewer, however, is easy to customize and decorate to fit the user’s style.
- Developer and manufacturer support: Google has released several production templates for manufacturers wanting to design their own viewers. Google also has extensive resources for developers, ensuring a steady production of new applications available to users.
- Easy to use and assemble: Using Google Cardboard is as simple as fastening the user’s smartphone into the viewer and opening an application. Each kit comes with easy-to-follow instructions for the user to set up their viewer for immediate use.
- Accessible content: There are already numerous VR apps and games readily accessible with Google Cardboard, as well as a selection of VR videos on YouTube designed to work with the headset.
- Best for Google Cardboard is best for the consumer who has a passing interest in the platform but who does not want to invest heavily in VR entertainment.
Samsung Gear VR is a mobile VR headset that works with Samsung smartphones. It is a lightweight headset designed for portability and extended use.
- Developed with Oculus: The Samsung Gear VR headset was developed in collaboration with Oculus and thus has access to many of the applications on the Oculus Store. Oculus Home is the main facility where the user downloads VR content.
- Powered by Samsung phones: The Samsung Gear requires a Samsung smartphone to use. It is compatible with Galaxy Note7, Galaxy S7 edge, Galaxy Note5, Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge and Galaxy S6 edge +. The phone’s battery powers the headset.
- On-board controls: A cross-shaped touchpad is located on the side of the headset. This pad allows for more control to navigate menus and applications. There is also a “back” button on the headset. Some games may require a gamepad, which is not included in the base product.
- Easy setup: Setting up the Samsung Gear is as simple as snapping the phone into the headset. Once the phone has docked with the headset, it automatically launches Oculus home, and the user can access VR content.
- Designed for comfort: Its light weight and generous padding make the Samsung Gear comfortable for extended use. Straps can be adjusted to fit the user, and, because glasses cannot be worn with the headset, a dial on top of the headset adjusts focus for the visually impaired.
- Best for With a relatively modest price, the Samsung Gear VR headset is best for owners of Samsung phones who are interested in the potential of VR technologies.
The Microsoft HoloLens is not a VR headset. Instead, it provides what Microsoft calls “mixed reality,” an experience that overlays virtual images on top of the user’s actual environment, blending holograms with the real world.
- Complete computer: Unlike other headsets that are peripheral components for other devices, Microsoft HoloLens is a self-contained, holographic computer. It requires nothing beyond itself for use.
- Runs on Windows 10: The HoloLens uses Windows 10 for its operating system. This means that, in addition to applications designed for it, it can browse the Internet or perform any other task of a PC.
- Natural interface commands: Most of Microsoft HoloLens commands can be executed with gestures and the user’s voice. Basic “air tap” commands allow the user to interact with the HoloLens programs without the need for a controller.
- Spatial awareness: Because the HoloLens does not cover the user’s eyes completely, the user can retain a level of spatial awareness that other full VR headsets do not. The HoloLens augments rather than shuts out the user’s physical space, minimizing danger of injury.
- Creative applications: Most of the apps for HoloLens are designed to help users build their own hologram applications. There are a few games, but the majority of its applications are studio suites designed for educational purposes.
- Best for The Microsoft Hololens is best for developers who want to explore the practical applications of hologram technology.
Razer, one of the most prominent U.S. hardware developers, has become a leader in the Open-Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) with its new headset dedicated to VR video gaming.
- Open-source development: OSVR is as much a movement as it is a hardware and software platform. It aims to enable headsets and controllers from all vendors to be used with any and all accessible VR software.
- Hacker’s Development Kit (HDK): The OSVR headset, currently called the Hacker’s Development Kit (HDK), is the first model made specifically for the OSVR movement. It is designed to be used with any open-source VR software on the market.
- Focus on gaming: The OSVR headset is designed specifically for gaming. While there are certainly other foci for OSVR development, it is a system built for gaming, earning the support of top game publishers like Ubisoft.
- Upcoming motion controls: Razer has partnered with Manus and Leap Motion to develop a pair of gloves for motion controls. Because the product is open-source, there will be numerous third-party controllers that will work for the headset.
- Upgradeable: As trends in gaming and tech change over time, the OSVR headset can be upgraded to fit new hardware. Augmenting the headset requires a tech-savy user, but with a bit of skill, it can be taken apart and reconfigured as modifications become available.
- Best for The Razer OSVR headset is best for gamers who see the potential for open-source development.
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