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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Best for The Razer OSVR headset is best for gamers who see the potential for open-source development.
Information in this guide is general in nature and is intended for informational purposes only; it is not legal, health, investment or tax advice. ConsumerAffairs.com makes no representation as to the accuracy of the information provided and assumes no liability for any damages or loss arising from its use.